Two strong women, the daughters of a UDA man, one now an MLA, the other a drifter have just returned to Northern Ireland and meet at government buildings on the first day of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Scrapping, shouting and tearing at each other, any prospect of an entente is barely visible; what they share is not blood or ‘tribe’, despite what the prodigal sister thinks, but their memories of a violent past and a need to fight for their very sanity. Far from the glossy hair and corporate name-tags, their fierce confrontation becomes its own truth and reconciliation commission, bashed out amid the fire-hoses and pipework of a tiny basement room.
And yet, for the sisters and for Northern Ireland, there is still ‘everything between us’. The fragile line between being arrested for terrorism on the first day of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – or not – rests on the ability of a whole society to understand that ‘what amounts to a terrorist attack’ can also be written off on this day, of all days, as simply ‘a family problem’. It’s not as if Teeni hasn’t tried hard enough to catch her sister’s attention already by assaulting a leading black South African expert on conflict resolution and yelling for the return of apartheid. The personal is political, but the political is certainly personal.
David Ireland’s Everything Between Us breathes new life into a simple premise and some pretty familiar ground. Although a little too fond of set-pieces, the dialogue is fast, energetic, brutally funny and thoroughly engaging. The playwright has a gift for the choppy ebb and flow of sibling conversation, even siblings as estranged as these; at any given moment the talk switches from accounts of appalling sexual and physical violence to speculation about the number of screens at a local Omniplex and the trials of having to be nice to people on Facebook. But David Ireland has more serious sacred cows to kill and it is through Teeni that the harshest – and wildest – accusations are voiced.
Teeni is nothing short of explosive, tense and restless in her every movement, flipping between menace and childish regret, racist vitriol and well-aimed critique in her tall tales and ribald rants. Even in the bare basement (and Sarah Bacon’s deceptively simple set provides a surprising range of pockets and corners for the sisters to inhabit), she finds opportunity for trouble, flicking a switch here, firing up a furnace there. New York, she declares, “is just like Belfast, only bigger”. The difficulty for Teeni, of course, is that everywhere is. Absent for eleven years, Teeni returns to a country whose new belief in reconciliation she can only despise: “Can you believe there’s a Starbucks in Ballymena now? Fucking mental.” Her struggle with her sister makes visible within the microscopic conditions of one family not just the dramas of violence and forgiveness, ‘truth’ and reconciliation, but a ravaging sundering of past and present that cannot be spoken in the halls of Stormont or streets of Belfast.
There is an awful lot of talent here, and the performance brims with those different energies: the playwright, David Ireland, is himself an established actor; livewire Teeni is played by Stacey Gregg, herself a leading young playwright. And Abigail McGibbon’s likeable Sandra, already playing at mother, sister and politician, radiates a strength born of compulsion more than will. Director Sophie Motley cuts her coat according to her cloth, and Everything Between Us is another confident and interesting production from Rough Magic. But for me there is also a little too much going on: too many explanations, too many directions, too much investment in setpieces of quickfire dialogue. And yet, Everything Between Us deserves attention for its boldness and verve, putting two women’s experiences at the heart of the Northern Irish story.
The obvious comparison is with Owen McCafferty’s Quietly, which toured the UK and Ireland last year to a steady chorus of acclaim. But where McCafferty’s play stuck with the traditional locations and loci of Irish drama – a gathering of men in a pub sorting out the business of living with or without forgiveness in Irish history; here, post-Peace Process Northern Ireland – Gary Ireland’s play takes a few crucial steps away from that somewhat hoary tradition. Alcohol still plays its part; in one of the funniest episodes, both sisters’ idiosyncratic engagement with Alcoholics Anonymous offers something close to the spiritual support neither find any more in faith or church. Teeni could not be more dogmatic, more one-dimensional, more vociferous in her unionist beliefs and rants against ‘the Fenians’, but her sister, the politician, has found what she describes as a more ‘even-handed’ way of moving forward. However, there is nothing simple about living within even the most black-and-white political and religious identities, as the play eloquently shows. Unlike Quietly, this dialogue-driven piece generates little in the way of dramatic suspense, but is all the stronger for it. With little more to work with than two women drawn to one another and away from one another with equal force, there is a limited set of foregone conclusions on offer. And where else can we end but back at the beginning? As Everything Between Us shows, there above all, everything is to play for.