Tuesday 20 August 2019

Still die-hards under the skin and wine

  • Fire Below, Peacock Theatre
  • Strutting and Fretting, Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, Powerscourt
From left, Cara Kelly, Ruairi Conaghan, Frankie McCafferty, and Ali White in 'Fire Below'
From left, Cara Kelly, Ruairi Conaghan, Frankie McCafferty, and Ali White in 'Fire Below'
Chris McHallem in Strutting and Fretting'

Emer O'Kelly finds little hope in a riveting new play looking at Northern Ireland.

'We're not real Protestants and Catholics, are we?" says Gerry.

It's a comment, not a question. And he means he's a "middle-class ex-Catholic" himself, as is his wife Rosemary, while his neighbour Tom and his wife Maggie are also middle class, but of the opposite "ex" variety.

(Protestant Tom decided to learn Irish on the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed. It was a gesture, an OK gesture as far as Gerry is concerned, whereas if he himself learned Irish, it would be "too Republican".

It's enough to make both the Catholic god and the Protestant god weep; because the lot of them are only superficially civilised, and certainly have not "moved on" from all those working-class sectarian prejudices.

Owen McCafferty subtitles his play Fire Below as a "war of words". And war it is: war to the death between attitudes that for all the "jaw-jaw" in the world as opposed to "war-war" have never even been breached during what is laughingly called the ''peace process" in Northern Ireland.

That of itself, McCafferty implies, as the play progresses on its precipitous slide, is a device for politicians to lay claim to progress - while the reality is unreconciled to any kind of normality.

And, of course, they all WANT normality: a normality where all the compromise is on the other side, otherwise known as "parity of esteem".

It's July 11, a hot night. And the two couples sit in Gerry and Rosemary's middle-class garden in a desirable Belfast neighbourhood, watching from its lofty height, as the "real Protestants" in the housing estate at the bottom of the garden light their ritual Twelfth bonfire. And from supercilious contempt for such pathetic rituals, the two couples lower the wine and lower their guards.

It's ugly, it's verbally brutal, and it's as irreconcilable as any conflict in history. In the Middle East. The two warring Belfast couples don't refer to that figure whom, in their religious days, they both laid claim to. But they do go to drunken war on the question of Israel and Palestine today… a handy substitute for their own entrenched prejudices.

Fire Below is a co-commission for the Lyric Theatre and the Abbey, playing in Dublin at the Peacock, and it's utterly depressing, absolutely riveting, profoundly convincing, and equally profoundly devoid of hope. And as a companion piece to the author's Quietly, it is far more accomplished, and far more credible, simply because of its hopelessness.

It's played with harshly subtle ease by Cara Kelly and Frankie McCafferty as the Catholic couple, and Ruairi Conaghan and Ali White as their Protestant counterparts. Directed by Jimmy Fay, the Lyric's Artistic Director, (assisted by Emily Foran) it's designed by Paula McCafferty and lit by Sinead McKenna.


Chris McHallem is English. I mention it only because his sense of humour comes over as the wry, self-deprecating, essentially English way of looking at life. His tongue, in fact, is so firmly in his cheek that you sense it's the only way he can manage to avoid sticking it out at the actor's life of Strutting and Fretting.

Except that McHallem, with a distinguished if low-key career under his belt, takes as his subtitle a play on a better-known phrase: in his case, it's ''an actor despairs" rather than the better-known "an actor prepares", Stanislavski's somewhat solemn text on the mechanics of acting.

Because, according to McHallem, entering in his character of James Dillinger, a not too successful actor ending a tour in Macbeth (to an audience of 26) "life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more".

But, of course, Dillinger didn't get the chance to deliver the famously thrilling Act Five speech of the blood-soaked and despairing Macbeth; he's just been playing Lennox… with the advantage that the second half can be spent relaxing in the dressing room, the night's work over.

He ruminates with lugubrious glee on the minor touring actor's life, almost bound to be ensnared by the (female) stage manager as a recipient for her life's woes, to be followed by a brief fling, frequently more accurately a one-night stand. (She can't aspire to the actor playing Malcolm, you see.)

In this case, Malcolm has been wiping the eye of Lennox for quite a while, and is about to do so again: next on the itinerary is an eight-part mini series on Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson. Dillinger will play the role (necessarily brief) of Mrs S's first husband, while tonight's blond Malcolm has bagged Edward.

Ah me! But there's always Wendy (the stage manager.) This is an utterly cynical look at the acting life, elevated into total charm by a fine actor - which McHallem is - clever writing, and a hugely intelligent awareness of the vagaries of his profession (which one suspects he takes far more seriously than appears on this laugh-a-minute surface).

And along the way there's a wildly irreverent dissection of "the Scottish play" with a withering dismissal of the Porter's scene and a reduction of the two main protagonists to a less than impressive sounding ''Mr and Mrs Macbeth".

It's at Bewley's Lunchtime Theatre in Dublin, directed at a nice clip by Michael James Ford, designed by Fiona Cunningham, with lighting by Colm Maher and sound by Ewan Cowley.

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