Plays based on historical and significant conflicts often tend toward the bombast and spectacle: either exploring the actions and feelings of the major players in positions of power or else looking at the predicament of the many. Quietly rather fittingly deals instead with the unobtrusive and age-old conflict of two strangers and is set in the sullen confines of a Belfast public house.

Typical of Traverse, the set is gorgeous with no detail spared: a bar filled with dusty spirit bottles and bedecked with tatty paraphernalia, several heavy stools and high tables and even an apparently functional fruit machine fill the thrust stage.

Polish barman Robert (Robert Zawadzki) begins alone on what is evidently a quiet night before being joined by grizzled Catholic Jimmy (the excellent Patrick O’Kane). Together, they exchange begrudging pleasantries and watch Northern Ireland play Poland at nearby Windsor Park bringing sporadic and elegiac discussion of their nationalities’ flaws and attitudes. This is broken by bearded and similarly dilapidated Ian (Declan Conlon), a protestant attempting to address an ancient grudge with Jimmy. His arrival sparks to initial hostility that moves fairly quickly to outright violence before settling into a turbulent stichomythia that is slowly but elegantly rendered.

Quietly’s plot is a simple narrative that does take a long time to fully unfold but it is one rendered all the more brutally tragic by this methodical retelling: the lyrical prose style and deliciously lilting Irish accents ensure you remain rapt, as does the intrigue of it running chronologically alongside an actual historical football match being played (albeit one whose commentary fades in and out during the more intrinsic sections of story).

The script is delicate, with a calm pace of explanation and the historical plot contains many enthralling but not falsely serendipitous links in image, topic or actual location to its contemporary retelling from Ian to Jimmy. Its physical staging is similarly well considered, consisting of little outright blocking and certainly no superfluous and anxious attempts at ‘keeping it interesting’.

O’Kane is the standout performer: when not spitting accusations with a simmering vulgarity at Conlon, he broods like a dog with its hackles up over the apologetic and deviatory responses. Zawadzki also does well with what he is allowed, performing convincingly and with a dash of wry humour. It is a faint but fair criticism to suggest that his role in the ‘truth and reconciliation’ process never resembles the mediator role his presence suggests and the script explicitly mentions. This absence would be innocuous but for the failure to indicate properly his own representative position in the context of the disagreement meaning the play’s final moments (which, like much of its dialogue, subtly grounds the turbulent history of the Troubles into a modern context) pull its punch somewhat.

Nonetheless, Quietly is an excellent and powerful production that examines a topic of real weight and sorrow with both a sensitivity and an analytical precision. Its narrative nestles neatly between the past and present with a real grace and will likely fascinate, if not necessarily mesmerize an audience member.

Reviews by James Dolton

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The Blurb

‘There’s more to the truth than facts.’ Two middle-aged Belfast men are meeting tonight for the first time. They share a violent past. They need to talk. A powerful new play by Owen McCafferty from Ireland’s national theatre.

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