4 stars out of 5
Agreement review — the Northern Ireland peace process as vivid docudrama
Lyric, Belfast Dominic Maxwell
Dan Gordon as John Hume and Patrick O’Kane as David Trimble
It is 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 deal between the British and Irish governments and the Northern Irish political parties that stopped most of the violence from the Troubles. It led to power sharing, among other things, and if you don’t know the finer details of that, don’t worry: Mo Mowlam will helpfully turn to the audience and explain them in Owen McCafferty’s bustling yet lucid new play.
Finding one satisfying, unstodgy way to depict all the complexities of three days of negotiations in just under two hours on stage is, as you’d have thought, an impossible task. Yet the strength of McCafferty’s drama is that he has recognised that there is indeed too much happening here for conventional storytelling to hack it. He embraces bittiness. Don’t expect big set-piece scenes in which somehow Mowlam, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, the nationalist politicians John Hume and Gerry Adams, the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, the taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair all sit in the same room, first speechifying and then compromising. This is a docudrama — albeit one with fanciful moments — not an Ibsen play. And only in one goosebump-inducing moment between Mowlam (Andrea Irvine), who is suffering from cancer, and the bereaved Ahern (Ronan Leahy) does the tone turn personal.
With so much to get through, and with advances that come in increments, mostly involving secluded tête-à-têtes — including a memorable chat between Adams and Trimble at the urinals — the tone of Charlotte Westenra’s production must also be inventive, unconventional and occasionally tangential. Characters stand at the front of Conor Murphy’s circular stage and introduce themselves. Adams (a genially combative Packy Lee) and Trimble (an engagingly tense Patrick O’Kane) can’t agree on much. Hume (Dan Gordon) is more affable, but nobody’s fool. They do, however, work together as part of a carefully choreographed cast, sitting at their lamplit desks in between bursts of moving the furniture around the set. They are all upstaged by a rock-star entrance from Blair (Rufus Wright), and later join him in an Ethel Merman-style dance routine.
The show gets more persuasive as it goes along. At first you wonder if the cast should be miked up, so their encounters register more easily on such a big stage. And delicious though Wright is as the comic relief, does McCafferty underestimate the beaming British PM?
The tension steadily rises. Boobyish Blair finally makes a decisive intervention. The sense of relief at the resolution is all the more impressive because so many small scuffles have accumulated, almost imperceptibly, into one large breakthrough. By the end, Agreement is a vivid, outstandingly well-performed depiction of a key point in recent history, and a tribute to the power of compromise.