Sunday, October 15, 2017

Fire Below (A War of Words): class warfare on the decking (Lyric Theatre until 28 October) #belfest

Rosemary and Gerry are out on the patio decking waiting for their neighbours Maggie and Tom to come round and help them guzzle a crate of New Zealand wine that she ordered online. A civilised cross-community middle class evening of putting the world to rights with the strain of opera music in the background and some not so casual racism while Gerry waits for the Eleventh Night bonfire to be lit in the field at the bottom of the garden.

Owen McCafferty’s new play Fire Below (A War of Words) holds a mirror up to the letsgetalongerist middle class behaviour of pretending that everything is all jolly nice and there’s nothing to disagree about that can’t be disagreed about in an agreeable fashion.

That is until an overseas conflict comes up in conversation and acts as a proxy for the local one that has up until now been swept under the decking. It all kicks off, harsh words and bitter silences are exchanged, and the limit of neighbourly offence is measured by experiment.

Gerry is as drôle as he is irascible, sipping wine and hiding behind dark sunglasses and the plumes of smoke from his e-cigarette. Mostly the ex-Catholic sits on the fence, neither liking nor disliking anything or anyone … unless someone hits a topic that is dear to him.

Actor Frankie McCafferty is clearly in his element as Gerry and has the audience roaring with laughter as he uses Owen McCafferty’s script to spit out moment after moment of comic genius.

Rosemary (played by Cara Kelly) ignores the excesses of Gerry’s humour. She bats away his hare-brained schemes and rarely sits down, preferring to buzz around filling up wine glasses and offering nibbles.
[Rosemary] “… I would care if I thought they were dancing around the bonfire thinking we were Fenian bastards – I’d care then – if they’re just doing what they do because they are who they are then no I don’t care.”

Tom (Ruairi Conaghan) is learning Irish as a Protestant and practices it with Rosemary next door. Lacking Gerry’s easy sense of humour he exposes himself as an ass early on and is the character you just can’t warm to.

On the other hand, Maggie is the revelation of the piece. Ali White brings depth and effervescence to the character which probably has the least lines in the play. She allows the wine to slowly dishevel Maggie’s appearance, before bursting back to life towards the end of the one act no interval play to tell a story about her mother and then justify her position on the divisive contentious issue that breaks the party up. It’s like a much more subtle version of her performance as Veronique in the magical God of Carnage a couple of years ago.

Paula McCafferty’s set allows the decking to extend beyond the natural front of the Lyric stage, perhaps symbolically linking the middle class characters on stage with the supposedly middle class characters in the stalls. Six frameless windows hang behind the decking reflecting the onstage action and allowing the audience to imagine seeing themselves in the action. However, I found them visually distracting when they also gave a glimpse of (a projection of) swaying trees and the bonfire.

For once the theatrical middle-classplaining about loyalist culture and motivations is perhaps justified. It’s an illustration of how shallow this behaviour looks and is.

Playwright Owen McCafferty gets away with it, but there is a nagging feeling that he is deliberately ignoring the reality that Northern Ireland is no longer made up of binary communities: Protestant and Catholic, unionist and nationalist. What’s missing – though I bet it’s not a sequel – is the awkward evening when the Alliance/Green-voting neighbours on the other side come round and everyone tiptoes around the cultural landmines once again.

The fascination with the bonfire at the bottom of the garden provides the reason for the cast to constantly look out at the audience (although the mirrored set would have allowed them to stand at any angle). Director Jimmy Fay creates some lovely lines on stage with the four characters and has great fun with the awkward silences. The extended dance routine is performed with guts and gusto, as is the rather tuneful impromptu rendition of The Sash.

Owen McCafferty beautifully plays different pairs of characters off against each other, exposing marital tensions and unlikely alliances. Fluent Irish speakers – and anyone with programme to hand which includes the translations into English – will realise that some of Rosemary’s quips in Irish to Tom along with her one extended violent outburst confirm what you might already suspect about the closeness of the two neighbours.

The final scene which pretends that nothing untoward has happened and allows the couples to return to share an earlier racist motif initially felt like an awkward end to the play. On reflection, perhaps that is exactly as should be. It’s not a neat ending; instead it’s a rather frayed and disappointing conclusion because these characters are stuck in their rut and unwilling to change.

Yet the eponymous ‘fire below’ has been lit in the patio’s fire pit. The couple’s clichéd sociability and animosity is exposed for the shallow excuse for a relationship that it is as they tiptoe over the truth of their differences. And the audience have no excuse not to learn from this moral tale seen reflected in the stage’s mirror.

Fire Below (A War of Words) plays in the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast International Arts Festival until 28 October after which it transfers to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin 7-18 November.

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