News Ticker

Agreement

An extraordinary experience that never falters in engaging the audience.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

The company of Owen McCafferty’s “Agreement” at the JL Greene Theatre at the Irish Arts Center (Photo credit: Nir Arieli)

[avatar user=”Scotty Bennett” size=”96″ align=”left”] Scotty Bennett, Critic[/avatar]

“Negotiate—to discuss a matter with a view to a settlement or compromise. We all spend a good deal of our lives negotiating. It’s how we solve the problems that confront us in our relationships with others.” These are the words of playwright Owen McCafferty which is the basis of his superbly realized play Agreement, a play not to be missed. It is an extraordinary experience that never falters in its engagement with the audience.

An outstanding ensemble of actors beautifully executes Charlotte Westenra’s direction. Regarding the play, she said, “The play is called ‘Agreement’ and not ‘The Agreement’ as it has resonance beyond its specific setting.”

Negotiations are what one hopes for when a problem leads to a conflict, large or small, that has resulted in a standoff. This play is a dramatization of three days in April 1998 that led to an accord to end the social and political unrest that had consumed Northern Ireland for decades. The origins of this unrest stretch back to 1609, and the various periods of turmoil from that time were known as “The Troubles.”

Andrea Irvine as Mo Mowlam and Richard Croxford as Senator George Mitchell in a scene from Owen McCafferty’s “Agreement” at the JL Greene Theatre at the Irish Arts Center (Photo credit: Nir Arieli)

The 20th century issues sprang from 1922 following the Irish Revolution and the division of Ireland into two zones. The Southern zone ultimately became independent, while the Northern zone remained a part of the United Kingdom. It was more than a division of land; it was a division of ethnic, religious, and political loyalties. It was these differences that were at the heart of negotiations. It was a clash between those who wanted to remain a part of the United Kingdom, the Unionists, and those who wanted to be a part of the Irish Republic, the Republicans.

The story starts with an introduction by retired U.S. Senator George Mitchell (Richard Croxford), who as US Special Envoy for Northern Ireland was fundamental in guiding the parties in the conflict to the Belfast Agreement, now known as the Good Friday Agreement. He speaks directly to the audience, introducing himself and clarifying his role in the negotiations: “I simultaneously juggle knives and balloons.” As he does his introduction, the cast is rolling metal desks into the performance space and setting up what could be considered an open-space office.

Each of the characters introduces him or herself like Croxford. The first is Andrea Irvine as Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State and the only woman involved in the negotiations. Irvine inhabits her character perfectly, and although the men in the room diminish Mowlam’s status, she becomes a prodding and steadying influence in the discussions. The next is John Hume, with an excellent portrayal by Dan Gordon as an Irish nationalist and pacifist. His primary goal is an end to the fighting. He is the calm side of the Irish contingent.

Martin Hutson as Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain and Ronan Leahy  as Bertie Ahern, Prime Minister of Ireland, in a scene from Owen McCafferty’s “Agreement” at the JL Greene Theatre at the Irish Arts Center (Photo credit: Nir Arieli)

Ruairi Conaghan plays David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. His opening lines make clear what he is about and that he is a force to be dealt with when he says, “I am here to maintain the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” Conaghan’s performance is a solid interpretation of a man committed to a particular view who resists anything other than his own original belief.

His counterpoint from the Irish side is Gerry Adams, played by Chris Corrigan, with a perfect balance of fiery resistance and pragmatic understanding. Adams is as clear about his view of the issues as when he says, “My goal is to see the reunification of my country.”

Trimble and Adams are the hard core of what the negotiations will butt up against and around which those negotiations will revolve. Each of them resists anything that may negatively impact their view of the issues as the other members of the negotiating group look for ways to bring them on board to an agreement.

Ruairi Conaghan as David Trimble and Martin Hutson as Prime Minister Tony Blair in a scene from Owen McCafferty’s “Agreement” at the JL Greene Theatre at the Irish Arts Center (Photo credit: Nir Arieli)

There are two more players in this drama of this moment in history: Tony Blair (Martin Hutson), the Prime Minister of Great Britain, and Bertie Ahern (Ronan Leahy), the Taoiseach (Tay shah), or Prime Minister of Ireland. Hutson and Leahy effectively embrace these two characters, each perfectly capturing their characters’ personalities. Blair is a charismatic, competent lawyer/politician, and Ahern is a solid, straight-talking, down-to-earth businessman.

The issue at hand is a document called the Mitchell Agreement. It is a draft of the proposed resolution to the conflict that has been worked out over a few years by groups on both sides. In effect, a distillation of all the discussions that have gone before is put into a form that the assembled representatives will work to finalize. They have three days to reach a consensus, or the whole effort falls apart.

What makes this play such an extraordinary experience is how McCafferty’s words are presented in a way that captures the intensity and stress of the three days of point and counterpoint. Westenra’s direction brings out the power of the presented ideas. It guides the extraordinary cast in putting the audience in the “room where it happened,” borrowing a line from another play.

Andrea Irvine as Mo Mowlam and Martin Hutson as Prime Minister Tony Blair in a scene from Owen McCafferty’s “Agreement” at the JL Greene Theatre at the Irish Arts Center (Photo credit: Nir Arieli)

McCafferty’s use of each character as a narrator of their actions or as a commentator on the actions of others, coupled with Westenra’s deft direction, is effective in keeping the audience in the middle of the proceedings. An essential element in her direction is the choreography of the scene changes. The set by Conor Murphy is mainly composed of rolling metal desks that are moved by the cast in Dylan Quinn’s precise choreography, changing the view of the set for the audience. It is another device to keep the audience engaged. Murphy is also responsible for the period-perfect costumes.

Eoin Robinson’s video projections on a large oval projection screen that hangs over the stage add context to elements in the production. They show parts of the text as it is being discussed, the dreary sky in Belfast, moments when the characters are being televised in a press conference, and most importantly, the passage of time with the scene’s date. At the end, a clock shows the countdown to the finish.

Kate Marlais’ compositions and sound design add another dimension to the show by underscoring some of the action and as an accompaniment to the scene changes. There is a technical issue related to the volume of the sound in the scene changes; it is too loud. I believe the volume is set high to cover the sound of the wheels while the desks are being moved to new positions.

Dan Gordon as John Hume in a scene from Owen McCafferty’s “Agreement” at the JL Greene Theatre at the Irish Arts Center (Photo credit: Nir Arieli)

Another critical component in this type of production is lighting. When dealing with an open stage, lighting design is vital to effectively convey the sense of time, space, and location. Mary Tumelty’s design is solid in delivering what is needed.

Three additional players do voiceovers at various points in the show. Jonathan Blake is a radio reporter, and Anne-Marie Foster is a newsreader. Conleth Hill, as President Bill Clinton, provides a more critical voiceover towards the end of the play. Clinton called a number of the participants on the last day of the negotiations to help facilitate a successful conclusion.

Agreement (through May 12, 2024)

Lyric Theatre, Belfast Production

JL Greene Theatre at the Irish Arts Center, 726 11th Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit https://tickets.irishartscenter.org/overview/1814

Running time: 105 minutes without an intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

About Scotty Bennett (77 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.




This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.