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  • Chris ORourke

Fire Below (A War of Words)

Cara Kelly as Rosemary, Ali White as Maggie, Frankie McCafferty as Gerry, Ruairi Conaghan as Tom in Fire Below (A War of Words). Photo by Chris Hill


Moths To A Flame

Middle class Catholics and Protestants. Residents of a cultured, and multi-cultured, 21st century Belfast. A post, peace process landscape where former enemies have learnt to live in neighbourly accord. Well, sort of. For all is not quite as civilized as it might seem in Owen McCafferty’s excellent “Fire Below (A War Of Words)’’, commissioned by the Abbey Theatre, and co-produced by The Abbey and The Lyric Theatre. Here Catholic and Protestant neighbours converge, like judgmental Greek gods, over a glass or ten of wine, debating their lot and risking their fragile peace erupting into flames. Smart, often hilarious, and wonderfully thought provoking, “Fire Below (A War Of Words)’’ sets out to achieve a synergy of polar opposites in near perfect harmony, and almost gets here, in a fantastically enjoyable and gently defiant production.

Like moths drawn to a flame, Protestant couple, Tom and Maggie join Catholic neighbours, Rosemary and Gerry, to watch a working class bonfire burn in the housing estate at the bottom of the hill from the safety of Gerry's back garden. It’s the perfect way to spend a summers evening. Lounging in their self-made Mount Olympus, drinking wines from every corner of the world, enjoying a little opera and convivial company; what could possibly be more cultured. While debating local and world affairs, delivering heartfelt renditions of Chicago songs, and eating Italian meats, all four delight in congratulating themselves on achieving the height of neighbourliness and sophistication. Indeed, so close have they become over the two decades since the peace process, it can be confusing who exactly is married to whom? Tom might be Protestant, but he’s learning Irish from Rosemary, with both enjoying their coded conversations. Something their respective spouses, Maggie and Gerry, aren’t too pleased about. They prefer Spanish, and might even go to a class together. As the bonfire below is finally lit, older embers also ignite as alcohol flows, lips loosen, and deep undercurrents of forgotten prejudice erupt with volcanic ferocity. As the sun sets, will all they’ve shared burn away like moths drawn too close to the bonfires of old? Or might it still be possible for the eternal flame to burn brightly in the back garden, seeing them all safely through the darkness?

Ali White and Cara Kelly in Fire Below (A War of Words). Photo by Chris Hill

In “Fire Below (A War Of Words)’’ McCafferty has crafted a simple, yet remarkable comedy, as hilarious and moving as it is thoughtful and thought provoking. Feeling at times like The Flintstones meets Prime Time, “Fire Below (A War Of Words)” raises big questions on Ireland, identity, culture and multi-culturalism, and life as it is lived in contemporary Belfast. Frequently setting obvious binary opposites against one another, catholic/protestant/, male/female, working class/middle class, McCafferty’s script delivers some big-ask questions, which its exploration of polar opposites helps excavate. It might drift into sounding preachy, or overly didactic on occasion, but it never looses sight of the often hilarious humanity behind its questions. Questions, not all of which will be to everyones liking. Such as, have the working class in Belfast held its middle class to ransom? Is it accurate, or reductive, to suggest an Israel/Palestine, Protestant/Catholic comparison? If “Fire Below (A War Of Words)’’ might not give clear answer to such questions, perhaps it’s because its more concerned with dragging their often unconscious, and therefore unchallenged, prejudices out into the clear light of day. For sticks and stones can still break bones and names, and words, can set it all off.

Director Jimmy Fay does an outstanding job balancing the opposing needs of McCafferty’s excellent script, establishing a Yin Yang sense of balance between its serious intellectual interrogations and its lighthearted human hilarity. Fay’s wonderful rhythmic sensibility ensures pace is kept moving even as the silence is allowed to breathe, as well as marrying text with a superb ensemble who bring more than what is required to deliver first class performances. Cara Kelly as Rosemary is an absolute delight as an Irish-speaking woman who likes to throw money away, venting her spleen at the end with wondrous rage. Ruairi Conaghan as the charmer Tom, a man determined to do his part to get to know the language of his former adversaries, is also deeply engaging throughout. As is Ali White, a marvel at enriching McCafferty’s words with a rich, gestural language: eyes questioning and demanding, wine glass extended brooking no refusal. Less is undoubtedly more in the case of an understated Frankie McCafferty, delighting as the near dead pan, ultra cynical Gerry, the man with the hat, the shades, and the non-classy attitude. Paula McCafferty’s set design, along with Sinead McKenna’s excellent lighting design, beautifully establish that twilight space between yesterday and tomorrow, friend and foe, a summer’s evening and the encroaching of night.

Ruairi Conaghan and Frankie McCafferty in Fire Below (A War of Words). Photo by Chris Hill

If todays generation struggle to comprehend our relatively recent, pre-technological past, future generations might well wonder at the inability of Protestants and Catholics to coexist in a troubled Belfast. For in “Fire Below (A War Of Words)’’ co-existence is lived in a real, engaged, sometimes messy, sometimes difficult manner. Yet like any form of co-existence, it only works when it’s wanted badly enough by everyone involved. Entertaining, educational, and extraordinarily enlightening, “Fire Below (A War Of Words)’’ strives to be a cathartic piece of comic theatre. It might not have all the answers, but it’s unafraid to ask as many big questions as it possibly can, bringing them forth from their hidden corners. An act of hope in the face of prejudice, “Fire Below (A War Of Words)’’ might inhabit a fragile, liminal space between two extremes, but it’s a space it hopes might one day become the dominant one. Bold, brave, and bordering on brilliant, “Fire Below (A War Of Words)’’ manages to be both deeply thought provoking and irresistibly enjoyable. Don’t miss it.

“Fire Below (A War Of Words)’’ by Owen McCafferty, directed by Jimmy Fay, co-produced by The Abbey Theatre and The Lyric Theatre, runs at The Peacock Stage of the Abbey Theatre until November 18th

For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre

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