Royal Court Theatre, London – until 23 March 2019
David Ireland’s 2018 Edinburgh hit Ulster American took up where his previous success, Cyprus Avenue, left off, exploring post-Good Friday Agreement Irishness through the medium of heroically offensive comedy. It was the best new play for a long time, probably since Cyprus Avenue first played at the Royal Court in 2016. Now the latter is back, giving audiences another chance to see exactly what caused such as stir. Judging by the exclamations of horror as the full blackness of Ireland comedy unfolded, plenty of people won’t be forgetting this in a hurry.
The premise is ludicrous, as ludicrous in fact as the Troubles. Eric (Stephen Rea) is convinced that his baby granddaughter looks like “dirty aul’ Fenian fucker” Gerry Adams. He puts tiny glasses on her and draws a marker pen beard to test his theory. He is not best pleased because he is from East Belfast and, although he claims not to hate Catholics, he definitely hates Fenians and none more so than Gerry Adams. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter think he is insane and his therapist questions his fundamental identity. Then things go really, really wrong.
Ireland’s play is a wicked satire on the ideas held sacred by both sides during the conflict. He strips the contradictions of Northern Ireland Protestant identity bare – Eric is definitely not Irish… he’s British… but he starts to lose it when he wonders whether he might not be Irish after all.
Meanwhile, in London, the centre of the Empire, everyone pretends to be Irish and spends their time drinking the dark stuff in O’Neill’s. Ireland spares no one, British or Irish, Catholic or Protestant. Eric is an absurd figure but also a terrifying one, a a casualty of a brutal war that is over but has spread trauma in its wake. Rea’s performance is a masterclass, and the play belongs to him. He brings a slightly shambling physicality Eric, showing him to be broken without knowing through small things like the way he holds his shoulders. Despite his absurd behaviour, he is entirely believable.
Vicky Featherstone stages the play expertly on the beige carpet of the therapist’s office, designed by Lizzie Clachan, which becomes irrevocably stained as the truth comes out. Ireland’s writing pays tribute to theatrical history – a key moment recalls a notorious Edward Bond play performed on the same stage more than 50 years ago – and Cyprus Avenue is also reminiscent of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
Ireland writes the same savage comedy, and has the same ability to make audiences laugh in horror, but has time has moved on. Eric cannnot, and the world has left him a long way behind. Cyprus Avenue uses shock tactics to show us the horror within, but it is a comedy with depth, perceptiveness and a touch of genius.