Just Say No
Ulster says no. No to Fenian eyed, rebel singing, Catholic Republicans, even if they do have all the best songs. No to a united Ireland. No to thirty-two counties. We say again, Ulster says no. Or at least Eric Miller does. His daughter, Julie, not so much. She’s saying no to Eric’s outdated, Loyalist nationalism which has no place in her life, or in the new evolving North. For her and her new born daughter, the future is bright, even if it’s not exclusively, or even necessarily, orange. It’s a place with no more killings, with Catholics and Protestants working side by side, just getting on with their lives. Eric’s wife, Bernie, is saying no to Eric remaining in the house given his recent disturbing behaviour. His psychologist, Bridget, is saying no to Eric addressing her by derogatory, racial terms. And wannabe terrorist, Slim, is saying an emphatic no to the baby looking like Gerry Adams. In David Ireland’s award-winning, 2016 dark comedy, “Cyprus Avenue,” national identity and personal identity collide as one man rationalises his decent into violence, providing endless justifications as he does so. Thought provoking and wonderfully unpredictable, “Cyprus Avenue” delivers a rollercoaster ride that dips and weaves at breakneck speed, taking you through unexpected, hilarious, and sometimes violent turns. Horrific and hysterical, “Cyprus Avenue’s” scalpel sharp satire cuts to the quick, leaving you laughing out loud even as it slices.
Resembling an episode of In Treatment at times, “Cyprus Avenue” finds Eric ready for his first session with psychologist Bridget, in her white carpeted office with its white cozy chairs, a simple and effective design by Lizzie Clachan. It all seems harmless enough, but telltale signs suggest otherwise. Eric's laces are removed from his shoes suggesting Eric is here for more than just a friendly chat. Eric has secrets, deep, dark, and dangerous, and has committed unimaginable deeds. The most dangerous secret of all being his fear that he is, in fact, Irish. But he loves the Irish. Everyone loves the Irish. He even drank in an Irish bar in Camden one time. He just doesn’t want to be Irish, and he most certainly doesn’t want them in his house. Which presents him with a dilemma. What must he do to preserve his culturally conditioned identity and its fragile future, even if that future might already be a thing of the past? And what does he do with his granddaughter who, he suspects, is Republican politician Gerry Adams? For Eric, Ulster asks to be placed above all else, including God, family, and self, with no sacrifice too great, no deed unimaginable, when it comes to preserving the myths of the past. Piling reason upon irrational reason offered as self justification, Eric’s rhetoric captures the often unspoken prejudices that inform a patriotic self loathing that calls itself love. And the end is as inevitable as it is horrifying.
Under director Vicky Featherstone, the wealth of horror, heart, and humour contained in Ireland’s absurdly comic script are deftly extracted and delivered at near perfect pitch. Performed with the audience on two sides of the space, Featherstone, like Ireland, buckles the realist frame without breaking it completely, compressing Ireland’s dense interrogations and insights into its small, restrictive conventions, causing them to press at the sides, like the relentless thoughts in Eric’s head. A head where Eric’s reasoning is all he has left to hold on to, saying it as he sees it, often blunt to the point of ignorance. An ignorance challenged by Ronke Adekoluejo’s problematic Bridget. Displaying the cold, factual logic of an instruction manual, Bridget seems less a character and more a device, a way to challenge, but more often to set up, Eric’s lengthy tirades, something Adekoluejo handles with grace and poise.
Indeed characters as ideas, or positions, is something Ireland foregrounds dangerously, just managing to restrain them inside his buckled realist frame, striking something of a precarious balance. Amy Molloy as Julie, a young mother in whose hands the uncertain future lies, wonderfully captures the hope, and vulnerability, of a new generation looking to leave the past behind. Andrea Irvine’s Bernie, in whom the past is relinquished for the hope of a better future for her daughter and grandchild, gives a powerhouse performance as a distraught wife and mother. As does a show stopping Chris Corrigan as the Johnny come lately terrorist, Slim, whose high octane, verbal sparring with the neo-colonialist, Eric, offers a hilarious, if frightening reminder, that the portents of paranoia can still hold sway. All of which gravitates around an unforgettable performance by Stephen Rea as the deeply troubled Eric, a man trying to reach the future through the past. Struggling with feelings disguised as reasons, with his London monologue an absolute treat, Rea’s Eric is frighteningly seductive, compelling by the sheer force of his passion and personality. Throughout, a jittery, evasive Rea makes the audience almost complicit as silent listeners, captured in fleeting moments of eye contact, giving ample proof why he is one of the outstanding actors of his generation in this award winning performance.
Like Van Morrison before him, David Ireland uses Belfast’s Cyprus Avenue to suggest a bygone time, even if in Ireland’s case that time is not worth reliving. Culture change is hard, never more so than when toxic elements of the traditional culture no longer have a place in the new. With discussions on a hard or soft border currently taking place, “Cyprus Avenue” serves not only as an interrogation of both history and nationalist ideology, but of the destructive forces that may yet hold sway. A reminder that for people like Eric, the ugliness of violence is always seen as fully justified when it comes to preserving nationalist pride, even when it’s no longer clear exactly whose nation that is. But Eric’s already covered. God will forgive him if he gets it wrong, even if he destroys everyone else in the process. But nothing can forgive missing this riotous, twisted, extraordinarily powerful production, so good you simply have to say yes. And if you’ve already had the experience, then in the words of Van Morrison, why not ‘get caught one more time up on “Cyprus Avenue.”’
“Cyprus Avenue” by David Ireland, directed by Vicky Featherstone, produced by The Abbey Theatre and Royal Court Theatre, runs at The Peacock Stage of The Abbey Theatre until May 19
“Cyprus Avenue” transfers to The Mac, Belfast from May 23 to May 26, before moving to The Public Theater, New York from June 2 till July 29