Swimming against the Tide

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Review of 'Scenes From the Big Picture', by Owen McCafferty, National Theatre, London

Against the backdrop of a divided Belfast, Owen McCafferty brings us a story of alienation and the day to day struggle of life. In 40 scenes that range from the darkly humorous to the despairing, the 20 characters play out storylines with a common theme.

'One of the saddest things in life is that the only thing a man can do for eight hours is work,' wrote William Faulkner. McCafferty's characters certainly feel this sorrow. Each of them is engaged in one of two battles--the battle to remove themselves from the situation they find themselves in, or the battle to prevent others from making the same mistakes.

Maggie and Bop open the play with a conversation that sets the scene for what follows. Maggie is determined to leave Belfast no matter what. Bop on the other hand sees no hope in the future--he desperately needs to find work, and is resigned to following his dad into the local meat processing factory. Maggie just wants to do something different, anything to get out of the city. She attempts to persuade Bop to go swimming, but his reply reveals much of his view of the world: 'Don't you have to be able to swim to go swimming?' Bop can't see a way to go against the tide, and feels himself just being dragged along. Bop's dad has other plans. He is determined to keep his son from the misery of the slaughterhouse and does his utmost to prevent Bop from passing the factory gates.

Joe, the factory shop steward, is in negotiations with management. He finds himself being persuaded to conceal the threat of closure from the shop floor, and is subjected to a barrage of lies and half-truths to prevent him from spilling the beans. It is not certain until the end of the day that the pay cheques will be forthcoming, and it is even less certain that any real future exists for the factory.

Despite being set in Belfast, it is never explicitly clear whether or not this is a Catholic or Protestant neighbourhood, and the Troubles only feature as an element of other stories. The strongest instance of this is in the relationship between two brothers who are not on good terms. They are forced together at the funeral of their father, and soon clash. They are both under the impression that the other lost money gambling and forced the father to sell his allotment--the one thing that the father and sons had in common. They would spend most of their free time helping out, and were devastated by the sale. The will reveals that the plot was never sold, and the brothers decide to make a visit. Their dad felt compelled to force the brothers apart, to stop them coming to the allotment in order to keep them from repeating his mistake. All is revealed when a sinister discovery is made in the tool shed.

'Scenes From the Big Picture' succeeds in characterising the life of working people in Belfast without a hint of religious of cultural difference. The characters could have been from either community, in fact any working class community, and it shows people struggling for a better life for themselves. What McCafferty doesn't do is give any real hope for the future. Watching this play only makes you even more determined to make some changes in our lives today.