Thursday, April 25, 2019

Ulster American – a dark and furious comedy about gender, identity, politics and theatre (Lyric Theatre until 28 April)

David Ireland writes with a fury that bursts onto the stage with passion and pace. Ulster American is his latest work. Ireland writes a collision between three different identities, and three different theatre roles. It’s a car crash of noise, heat and laughs. Yet the most jarring crunches often come in the gaps, where the characters continually misunderstand and misinterpret each other. It’s fabulous writing and keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Jay is a long hirsute Irish American actor who has never been in Ireland, the star attached to a production of a new play. He’s loud, brash, and tall enough to be more than a little intimidating. Darrell D’Silva struts across the stage like a rockstar, randomly interrupting conversation with bizarre and sometimes offensive questions.

Leigh is an English theatre director who cycles around round being consensual, beaten and bullying. The lack of an interval in this one act play keeps the audience as trapped as the on-stage characters in his pressure cooker of a living room. Designer Becky Minto gives him a modern and minimalist room with a beige carpet that should act as a huge warning given Ireland’s history of violence (Summertime, Cyrus Avenue). Robert Jack plays Leigh as effeminate, his trousers a couple of inches too short, speaking through his hand gestures as much as his increasingly hysterical statements.

The remaining vertex of the triangle is Ruth, a Northern Irish playwright who arrives late, quite flustered and quickly has to defend her creative decisions and correct the others’ misapprehensions about her characters, her identity (she’s British but everyone across the water sees her as Irish) and even her politics (a right-wing fundamentalist Unionism viewed with contempt in London). Lucianne McEvoy injects cold stares and displays a dogged determination in the face of the brutish actor and the panicky director.

With even the quieter moments of dialogue full of tension and invective, director Gareth Nicholls keeps adding greater and greater physical movement as the 80-minute play builds up to its crescendo. There are some beautiful moments of mirrored body language, invasions of personal space, and darting glances that add to the richness of the superbly-controlled performances.

While the men self-identify as feminists, they gang up on, belittle, override and ultimately brutalise the one woman in the room. While Jay points his fingers as a gun, Ruth threatens with a more modern drafted tweet on her mobile phone. Though ultimately it is the pen(cil) that is mightier than the sword: another moment of resonance with the funeral of friend Lyra McKee earlier in the day.

The discussion about rape that is lingers throughout the play nods towards Anglo-Irish history and politics. The characters at cross-purposes is a reminder that the two largest parties in the north can come out of negotiations with a deal that both sides understand and articulate completely differently.

“What kind of sick mind comes up with something like that?” asks the playwright (Ruth). Having already had a go at critics (“keep the good ones as pets” and kill the rest), actors (infantilised) and directors (commercially-driven), Ireland puts himself in the firing line, echoing the thoughts of much of the audience who are trying to compute whether such extreme sentiment and conversation is necessary to make whatever point Ulster American is intended to impart. At times, Ireland does seem to revel in being a controversialist dramatist rather than a brave and outspoken satirist. He’s fast becoming a modern stage version of Dennis Potter.

Ulster American is deliberately tasteless, sweary, showboat that makes its audience laugh all the more in their discomfort as Ireland piles more and more incendiary material on the bonfire while the able cast fan the flames and douse them with petrol in an attempt to further singe each other’s eyebrows. It’s a masterful and often comedic roller-coaster of a play.

Traverse Theatre Company’s production of Ulster American continues in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 28 April.

Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

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