Place yourself in Belfast in 2009. Two middle-aged Nordies meet in a pub in the jittery presence of a Polish barman. Their lives are linked by a bomb that one threw there, in 1974, at the height of The Troubles. It blew 6 men up, some literally to bits – one of them was the other one’s dad. Under this charged premise, and in an age when ‘terrorism’ is so often referred to, that it seems to amount to a global conspiracy of the under-25s, the Northern Irish playwright Owen McCafferty has written a play about reconciliation.
Quietly (2012) is a play about listening, says Reus-born director Ferran Madico, who has brought a Catalan-language version of the play to the Espai Lliure in Barcelona under the title En Veu Baixa. In this translation, by Joan Sellent, few changes have been made to McCafferty’s text, and Madico maintains the Belfast setting and the local names: Jimmy, Ian, and Polish migrant, Robert. “Our outside perspective is an advantage,” the director says, “and the universal themes recognisable. We can immediately relate the play to Basque violence or to that of the Spanish Civil War. We are asking, more generally, what happens when violence is over? How does a society come to terms with its past and move on? Especially when, as in our case, the past has been buried…”
Inevitably, of course, a hybrid Catalanised version of the play has been born; yet it’s not inauthentic, given the globalised Belfast referred to in McCafferty’s play, and perhaps best epitomised by the Pole at the bar.
En Veu Baixa places us in a pub like none I would imagine outside of Berlin, although apparently based on a real one in Belfast! In a city famous (or infamous) for its wall murals this interior is awash with incomprehensible multi-coloured graffiti – disarmingly hipster rather than overtly sinister. Also amplified in the drama is the screening of a 2009 World Cup match between Northern Ireland and Poland, actual footage of which is played on a telly that remains stubbornly on during the first half of (the) play. Football is a meeting point for venting emotion or rage, it’s the opium of the people, it’s a provocateur of despair tarted up as a beautiful game… (Newcastle fan here). This particular World Cup match ended in a citywide rampage by Polish hooligans – as if Belfast needed it.
Struggling to be Heard
In this context, 52-year-olds Jimmy (played by Francesc Garrido) and Ian (Òscar Rabadan) attempt to find a place of understanding. There is something superfluous even disappointing about the men, who, upstaged by this exuberant setting, seem like props left there from another production. Jimmy quaffs lager dutifully as it is placed before him, and has a teenage tendency to swing on his chair. Ian is sullen and stares at the table, recycling the line that he was “just 16” when he took the decision to murder some people. Robert (Xisco Segura) is their unwilling, incongruous referee: he seems to grasp at roles as they occur to him: hooligan, cad, Shakespearean fool…
Yet this is, indeed, negotiation: McCafferty’s dialogue is full of stops and starts, with no capital letters, as if to emphasise the inadequacies of the language itself; the men continually fall back into the euphemistic insincerity of official apology, or the banal superficiality of everyday speech. Catalan adds its own urgent tone to the text, with acute shifts in mood between aggression and irreverence, the mundane and the melodramatic.
It’s a difficult play as it is and ‘En Veu Baixa’, even harder to understand in Catalan; the visual distractions in this production proved too much for me. Local critics liked it, though, so perhaps it was a case of being able to listen very very carefully… There was a point when it did seem to come together: the telly is switched off, the dialogue slows down, Jimmy and Ian have the peace and quiet to tell their personal stories, and a fragile connection is made. Yet we are soon whipped up into another ideological drama, as the context once again crashes in.
En Veu Baixa – Espai Lliure Barcelona
until June 12th 2016
The play is in quite hard Catalan
Photo: © Ros Ribas