Owen McCafferty is generally considered to be one of Northern Ireland’s most important and original playwrights. He has written more than 20 plays, some of which have been translated and performed in Japan, Chile, Germany, France and America in recent years, and produced by every major theatre company in his native Belfast, from the Lyric Theatre to Tinderbox, Kabosh and Prime Cut.
This month, however, marks a distinct high point in McCafferty’s career – his first collection of plays published by Faber & Faber. ‘Well, there’s a sense of achievement,’ he says, in that typically modest tone. ‘Not because the plays have got any better, but it means now they’re in a collection the reader should hopefully have an overview of what I wanted to do and what I was working at, which is a good thing.’
Born in Belfast in 1961, McCafferty has produced a substantial body of work over the course of his 20-year career, and five of his early plays, including the monologue The Waiting List (1994) and his first major success, 1997’s Shoot the Crow – a tale of four Belfast tilers, which was nominated for an Irish TimesTheatre Award.
Following the success of Shoot the Crow, McCafferty quit his job as a tiler to become a full-time playwright, and in 1998 Mojo Mickeybo opened in Andrews Lane Theatre, Dublin.
This fast-paced play is also featured in the collection, and presents the Troubles from a child’s innocent perspective in 1970s Belfast, where best friends Mojo from ‘up the road’ and Mickeybo ‘from over the bridge’ build huts and attempt to avoid bullies whilst acting out their fantasies of being Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
McCafferty’s 2002 Closing Time, set in a hotel in the back streets of Belfast and the former site of a bomb blast, tells the story of those who didn’t move on from the Troubles.
However, McCafferty’s crowning glory came in 2003 with Scenes from the Big Picture, which earned him the John Whiting Award, the Evening Standard‘s Charles Wintour Award for New Playwriting and the Meyer-Whitworth Award – the first time any playwright had won all three awards in one year.
Scenes from the Big Picture presents 21 characters in three acts, set in a Belfast which, while theoretically new and fresh, is still mired in the mindset and legacy of the Troubles. Sitting opposite McCafferty in the study of his south Belfast home, the playwright warmly reflects on his career thus far. He believes that the new Faber & Faber collection ‘can give a historical context to the plays and highlight how style can change over time’.
Perhaps the biggest ‘change’ for McCafferty is yet to come. His next few plays ‘have nothing to do with [Belfast]’. These include Unfaithful, a play about adultery; an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler; and a play about a comedian for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Is McCafferty now ready to leave the Troubles behind?
‘Personally, as a playwright, you want to tell different stories. That clout can’t hang over us forever. Whenever I was writing about conflict here, it was always on the periphery, looking at people who weren’t involved but were affected, and right now I have no desire to write anything more about that. I think sometimes there’s a natural end to things, and if I’m honest it feels that Quietly was the end of a process.’
McCafferty’s most recent finished and produced play, Quietly explores how the ripples of past events can have far-reaching consequences – a tapestry of suffering – and depicts just how difficult reconciliation can be. Just this month, it was nominated for a Writers’ Guild award. Quietly is a kind of examination of a mini Peace Process, one that is initiated entirely by the individuals involved.
‘If we’re honest with ourselves,’ adds McCafferty, ‘I would have thought that the next big subject to come out of here would be encroaching racism. I hinted at it at the end of Quietly, which was enough. I don’t at this moment want to tackle it, but I would imagine that’s the next story, if you’re talking about that “type” of play.
‘I’d also imagine that there’s a whole load of stories to come out of here to do with emotional and personal journeys, and just everyday activity. Drama – and I don’t mean shitty, bad TV drama – that examines the human predicament more, instead of concentrating on the violence that is connected to political decisions or political beliefs. You’d think that would be pushed forward more.’
Almost all of McCafferty’s plays are set in his native city, where he has lived in the Ormeau Road area since the early 1970s. Dr Mark Phelan from Queen’s University writes in his introduction to McCafferty’s collection that ‘Belfast is more than merely the mise en scene for all five plays in this collection; it’s almost a character in itself. And yet, no matter how profoundly Belfast informs and inflects these plays, their imaginative geography is never circumscribed by the city’s limits.’
I ask McCafferty how it feels to have had only a fraction of his plays staged in the city since he took up the pen, and after he had made his name?
‘Sometimes these things are out of your control. You only go wherever you’re asked to go, and that means you go elsewhere to get your work on. For a long time I didn’t have things on here because I had things on elsewhere. Financially I couldn’t have kept things going if I stayed in Belfast, so that pushed me forward and I ended up in London, and it just so happened I had a run there for five or six years.
‘I think things have changed. My work isn’t as successful here as you might think it might be. Sometimes it isn’t as much about Belfast as people might like it to be. Yes, it sounds like it is Belfast and more often it is an imagined Belfast, but because the plays aren’t totally immersed in conflict and political debate maybe audiences didn’t think it was about them as much as they’d have liked them to be.’
McCafferty’s first collection will surely not be his last. Plays like The Absence of Woman, Quietly and adaptations such as Days of Wine and Roses and Antigone will have their place in future collections. But what of the lesser-known plays of his early career?
‘I think in future collections, you would add bits and pieces that aren’t as well-known,’ he suggests. ‘When you talk about a body of work, you don’t just mean you’re well-known work. It would be nice to see some of that in future collections.’
Finishing the interview – no doubt to McCafferty’s relief, considering his historic reluctance to face the press – I enquire about the short stories he wrote all those years ago. Stories that have never been published – private attempts at prose that, for him, did not prove successful. Could prose be something he would ever revisit?
‘It’s always in the back of my head to write a novel,’ he admits. ‘But sometimes I think I’ve written plays because I’m frightened about writing a novel. Writing a novel is a very singular thing and I think the style I have is quite sparse and that necessarily doesn’t transfer to a novel. I have started one and got half way through it and then other things came up, but I imagine I’d go back to it.
‘But there’s a practical difficulty in doing that. For example, I would not know how to describe a tree. Not a notion. But I could talk endlessly about what somebody thought of something or the significance of a human action. That’s why I think these things aren’t as easy to crossover as people think they are. My dad died long before I started writing, but he always had one piece of advice: “Before you move on to something else, make sure you’re good at the thing you’re doing now”.’
What makes McCafferty unique and deserving of this collection of plays is his ability to tell stories about people on the periphery. He tells beautiful stories: simple and utterly convincing. Unlike other playwrights writing about the Troubles, he abandons the long-cherished cliches of the thuggish underworld, and instead provides a new vision of the country’s social issues past and present. At heart, McCafferty is an old-fashioned storyteller – interested in the stories of people that might otherwise be ignored.
‘All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell stories about people who go unnoticed through life,’ he muses.
Owen McCafferty: Plays 1 is published by Faber & Faber.