Shoot The Crow, rather confusingly, has nothing to do with either the use of ballistic weaponry or annoyingly squawky dark-feathered harbingers of doom. Owen McCafferty’s play, which is currently being performed at the Trafalgar Studios 1, actually takes its name from the Irish slang for “I’m off”. With this important fact tucked snuggly into his trusty ‘bag of knowledge’, Matthew Amer headed off to interview the Irish playwright…
Owen McCafferty is every part the modern playwright. Meeting at the Trafalgar Studios, where his play, Shoot The Crow, is currently previewing, the middle-aged Irishman has a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of water and some nuts in the other; part rebel, part 21st century health-conscious man. His casual appearance – a jeans and jacket combo – beautifully reflects a persona which, if it was any more laid back, could well be dallying with the horizontal.
McCafferty has not been present for the entire four weeks of Shoot The Crow rehearsals, preferring instead to appear for the first and last weeks, spending the rest of his time at home with his family. As this is not the first time the play has been performed his role is not that of a playwright needed to knock out rewrites at the drop of a directorial hat, but more supervisory; guiding actors as needs be and offering advice. As he puts it: “If I’m called upon to say anything, I’ll say it. If I’m not, I don’t.”
Unlike many writers, McCafferty relishes the opportunity to be present for the final week of rehearsals, when all things technical are brought together. He knows how the words are created, but the behind-the-scenes magic is something that he takes great pleasure in seeing come together. It has, in the past, prompted thoughts that would otherwise have stayed, unrealised, floating in the ether. He also enjoys the act of collaboration with directors, lighting designers, actors and everyone else responsible for bringing a show together: “Once I’ve written it, I want other people to come on board and add their interpretation to it. I want them to make it complete.”
"From the very start I knew what I was doing."
In this production, four of the men helping to complete the play are actors Jim Norton, Packy Lee, Cold Feet’s James Nesbitt and double Olivier Award-winner Conleth Hill. This incredibly strong cast play four tilers who have the opportunity to buy a little piece of their dreams; all they have to do is commit one small petty crime. But who, if anyone, will get there first? McCafferty, who earlier in his life worked as a tiler, makes the point that the play could really be about any profession. It is more to do with the men’s own stories: “I wanted to tell a story about men and how they relate with each other in an emotional sense, even though they talk in code.”
At heart, McCafferty is an old-fashioned storyteller. This is what lies at the centre of his work. He originally began by writing short stories which, in his own words, “were s**t!” When his wife noticed the amount of dialogue in his work, she suggested he try plays. When he did, he felt “from the very start that I knew what I was doing”.
How would McCafferty describe his style of writing? “I’m not sure that I have any great desire to tell everybody what I think about the world. I think I’m more drawn to the desire to tell stories about people that we could easily ignore. I truly believe that politics in the world isn’t everything; it is an aspect of our lives, but not everything. What is more important to us is the normal, day-to-day emotional relationships that we go through. That’s what I’m always talking about.” This is certainly the case with Shoot The Crow, as McCafferty explains: “It could be very easy for the stories of the four men in this play to go unnoticed in life. I like the idea that we hear them.”
Though McCafferty professes to enjoying telling the stories of those who would normally blend into the background of everyday life, he does not write about real life. Shoot The Crow is not about tilers – “there would be no story to tell there” – but merely set in that sphere. The same can be said of his dialogue which, though grounded in reality, is deliberately heightened, “to make it slightly more poetic in order that the people who are watching realise this is a story. I never want the audience to believe this is real life, because it isn’t. I don’t write documentaries. It’s always; ‘this is a made up story, but hopefully it might feel real.’”
Both McCafferty, and his work, are rooted in Ireland. There is no mistaking his thick Irish brogue, though the ends of his sentences have a tendency to get lost in an ethereal space just in front of his face. There is also a style to his writing which McCafferty sees as classically Irish: “There’s always an element of comedy in anything I do, I think, which is quite Irish I suppose. I would say that is an Irish trait in playwrights.”
McCafferty’s last original play to be staged in London – he more recently adapted Days Of Wine And Roses for the Donmar – was Scenes From The Big Picture, an epic project involving 21 actors and more than 40 scenes, which was staged by the National at the beginning of Nicholas Hytner’s first season as Artistic Director. The production won the John Whiting Award (given to a play of contemporary importance which is of potential value to British life), the Meyer Whitworth Award (given to a writer whose play exhibits developing talent) and the Evening Standard Charles Wintour Award for New Playwriting. Though McCafferty was clearly pleased to win the awards, he remains grounded about their overall value: “It’s good to be recognised, but that is all it is. I have to continue working on my next play, and winning three awards isn’t going to make me write any better next time around.”
Through Scenes From The Big Picture and Closing Time, which was presented at the National as part of the Transformations season, McCafferty has built up a close relationship with the powerhouse of British theatre. He has another commission from Nicholas Hytner and has just had a meeting about this new play. In the past, many of his plays have stemmed from themes that he wanted to explore, but this new piece has grown out of a consideration of where Belfast is at the moment, not in political terms – “politics, in Northern Irish terms, seems a very redundant notion, because nothing ever changes” – but in the terms of what takes over when politics doesn’t affect a change. McCafferty’s newest play, therefore, is set, at least for the moment, in the land of the gangster.
"Winning three awards isn’t going to make me write any better."
When McCafferty nips back to Ireland he will be taking on directorial duties, rather than writing duties. Having joined the theatre world, McCafferty says he “can’t do anything else now”, not even a move back to his previous incarnation as a tiler or abattoir worker. It is lucky then, that he enjoys the company of actors so much: “Because they do what they do, they are very interesting people. It’s a strange job to be doing.” Looking at the theatre world from a writer’s point of view, the process of acting is one that intrigues McCafferty: “I hear them saying my lines, but I’m never completely sure how they get to where they are at, in order to say the lines”.
At the start of rehearsals for Shoot The Crow, one of the actors was indisposed. McCafferty, like one of Henry V’s soldiers at Agincourt, stepped into the breach, getting a taste for life on the stage instead of behind the scenes. He enjoyed the experience and although he has no plans to step out in front of an audience, “if the situation arose and I thought it was the right thing to do, I might have a crack at it”.
Having established that McCafferty does not write from personal experience, there is no way he would have first hand knowledge of any petty crime… is there? “When my wife and I were going around supermarkets doing the shopping, I used to feed the kids on the way round, and would take a drink of something myself, or lift a sweet! Presumably that is stealing?” Yes, and officiallondontheatre.co.uk can’t condone it. “I have no qualms about that by the way. The idea that you’re going to spend £140…”
Shoot The Crow runs at the Trafalgar Studio until 10 December. Click here to buy tickets for Shoot The Crow online.