Saturday, April 01, 2023

Agreement – ambitious in scale, a triumph of script, performance and education (Lyric Theatre until Saturday 22 April)

The protracted negotiations that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement took place in Castle Buildings, buried deep in the Stormont Estate. Owen McCafferty’s reimagined study of the final few days of the talks removes the walls – along with most of the participants – and plants the action on Conor Murphy’s clamshell set. A wide, open circular stage is positioned under a suspended sky whose clouds make way for calendar reminders in case anyone has lost track of time. The sense of everyone being trapped begins as you enter the theatre and the usher reminds you that there’s no interval and a strict no readmittance policy. The cast rarely leave the cauldron of contestation during the 105-minute performance. We’re all there until there’s agreement … or the talks collapse.

Agreement – note the absence of the definite article – uses seven well-known figures to illustrate how people can come to the point of being able to agree. What has to change to allow consensus and compromise to transpire? Can moments of raw humanity heal and build trust? When frustrations and concerns are repeated ad nauseum, what is it that unlocks a sense that they have not only been voiced, but also listened to?

Richard Croxford portrays George Mitchell as the unshowy ringmaster, a realist and a survivor of other negotiations who lives by the motto that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. With Paisley self-exiled from the talks, David Trimble represents unionism with Patrick O’Kane demonstrating the UUP leader’s irascible impatience, his principle-driven stance on major issues, and how his leadership is increasingly isolated from some vocal parts of unionism.

Since Agreement isn’t a recreation of the talks – which were dominated by papers being passed between groups and bilateral meetings rather than occasions when everyone could heckle each other – it’s forgivable that the cast of characters has been simplified. However, it’s unfortunate that loyalist parties who remained in the talks and the Women’s Coalition are not really mentioned as the Agreement under the theatrical spotlight would neither have had the shape nor the import without their participation.

The lack of women in the narrative does though have the effect of emphasising Mo Mowlam’s contribution. When her role in the talks is upstaged by the arrival of Tony Blair (Rufus Wright) – a moment that is brilliantly lit by Mary Tumelty – watch where Mowlam silently carries the contents of her desk, getting on with the work despite the deliberate slight. Yet the Secretary of State’s appreciation of the dynamics of the talks surpasses her prize-winning boss. If anything, Andrea Irvine could make Mowlam even more vulgar and still not be accused of taking liberties with her character who revelled in informality and loved to shock.

Packy Lee creates a bearded Sinn Féin leader who walks the fine line between serious and smirk, leaving the heavy lifting to John Hume, but leaving everyone wondering whether the republican movement’s off-stage council will eventually ask him to quit the talks if plans for the early release of prisoners isn’t to their liking.

McCafferty channels the inner teacher in the way he writes John Hume, making the character repeatedly step forward to check the audience are still sure of the difference between Strands 1 and 2 of the institutions. (Strand 3 becomes a running joke.) Dan Gordon puts in an incredible performance as Hume, with his final line in the play an almost perfect recreation of the SDLP leader’s intonation. But it’s the scene where an under-pressure Trimble finally admits to himself that he can trust Hume that unlocks the Agreement.

While Wright’s Blair is played for parody, emphasising the British Prime Minister’s showboating and lack of handle on the detail of the negotiations – back in 1998, advisor Jonathan Powell and, to a lesser extent, spin-doctor Alastair Campbell were doing the heavy lifting – Ronan Leahy’s Bertie Ahern is an unpretentious Taoiseach who is fully committed to the political talks in a week already burdened with the death of his mother. A particularly vicious argument between grief-stricken Ahern and an unwell Mowlam who is facing her own mortality feels slightly out of proportion, but the human moment of reconciliation that follows is spectacular theatre.

Should the audience ever begin to take the recreation too seriously, there’s room for the voice of Clinton to throw some presidential glitter over proceedings, Dylan Quinn’s choreographed fantasy dance sequence, and a deliberately opinion-rich and partial news bulletin (so good to hear Ann-Marie Foster’s voice again) to shake us back into this fantasy world. While familiarity with the political principals adds a lot to the detail of the production, it will possibly also distract local theatregoers from the wider lessons about how agreements are made. They’re in the script which was originally commissioned by Michael Grandage Company and may shine through more strongly if Agreement is ever staged in Great Britain or further afield.

Charlotte Westenra has contributed much more to this production than just directing the performance. Her five years of research informed the playwright’s script and that investment pays off in this rich, playful yet profound play that captures the essence of the exhausting process and takes us inside the headspace of the politicians and what drives their negotiating positions without ever resorting to the crowd-pleasing hagiography present in some other dramatical commemorations. After more than an hour of (literally) walking round in circles, McCafferty and Westenra teach the audience that trust and time sometimes have to be helped along by twisted arms in order to find agreement. The final tableau hints at the last supper, while many moments of dialogue seem to reach out from 1998 to speak into 2023’s political stalemate.

Agreement is ambitious in its scale, and a triumph of script, performance and education. It continues at the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 22 April.

Photo credit: Carrie Davenport

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