Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until 2 March 2019
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Trailing clouds of glory from the 2018 Fringe, David Ireland’s Ulster American has returned to the Traverse with a bang. If it is not quite as good as some have said, it is still impressive – and certainly is impressively nasty.
This is one of these productions whose reception by audiences and critics alike at last year’s Fringe was impossible to escape. However, what seems a refreshingly visceral interlude in a packed Festival day does not always stand up quite so well as the centrepiece of a February evening’s entertainment. Ulster American, however, retains considerable impact.
Hollywood star Jay Conway is about to start rehearsals for a Belfast-set play directed by the ambitious, avowedly liberal Leigh Carver. Unfortunately, Jay’s conviction that he is Irish does not prevent him from having an ignorance about Ulster that is of Karen Bradleyesque proportions. And when the play’s author Ruth Davenport appears, she is decidedly not what Conway expected – and things, which have already started to go wrong, take a turn for the (much) worse.
Certainly uncompromising in subject matter and language, and deserving of any number of trigger warnings, the play’s none-so-black humour is nevertheless a long way from being nihilistic. Instead, its satire is derived from a disappointment verging on an almost Biblical disgust, emanating from the kind of highly developed moral centre that is the enemy of nihilism.
However, its targets are so diverse, and the effect so scattergun, that much of the focus is lost. This does mean that the play is capable of being many things to many people – a rumination on identity politics, on feminism, an examination on the misuse of history, a portrayal of a world whose collective memory lasts only from one angry tweet to the next – but in the end it is a bit too clever for its own good, and ends up satisfyingly exploring none of these things.
There are worse sins than being too clever, of course, and hearteningly this level of thought is reflected in a wonderfully structured piece of theatre, with several gorgeous uses of foreshadowing. Chekhov’s famous gun maxim can rarely have been followed so pleasingly as it is here more than once.
Anyone worried by yet another play about theatre should be consoled by the fact that Ireland apparently finds utterly ridiculous those who believe there is nothing more important than making a play, with actors, directors, writers (and critics) all getting it in the neck – along with, it must be conceded, a great proportion of the rest of the human race.
The scabrous energy of the piece is beautifully served by director Gareth Nicholls (EmmaClaire Brightlyn’s contribution to the direction is also pivotal and impressive). Becky Minto’s deceptively functional design, Kate Bonney’s lighting and Michael John McCarthy’s sound design are all top class.
Robert Jack, Darrell D’Silva and Lucianne McEvoy. Photo by Sid Scott
in Ulster American
The cast, meanwhile, are simply excellent. Darrell D’Silva’s Jay, a strutting, preening film actor in thrall to his own ego and publicity, and Robert Jack’s Leigh, a prissily ineffectual self-preserver, are so energetically done that the characters’ somewhat binary opposition never strikes a false note. Lucianne McEvoy, meanwhile, is tremendous as Ruth, initially starstruck but with an inner steel.
In the end, the whole is slightly less than the sum of its spectacularly Grand Guignol parts. It is so tightly constructed and so energetically discharged, however, that this is only evident in retrospect; at the time, it is a disreputably thrilling ride. Not one for the easily offended, and well deserving of its 18+ recommendation, but nevertheless a compellingly put together production.
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED
Wednesday 20 February -Saturday 2 March 2019
Tues-Sat at 7.30 pm; Matinees Fri 22 Feb, Sat 2 Mar 2.30 pm
Tickets and details: https://www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event-detail/1581/ulster-american.aspx.
Robert Jack, Darrell D’Silva and Lucianne McEvoy. Pic Sid Scott