‘There are more important things in life than putting on a play.’ Not in David Ireland’s “Ulster American” there aren’t. Even when his three antagonists can’t agree what the play they're rehearsing is really about, or who the playwright really is, nothing must stand in the way of the show going on. All they have to do is decide who’s getting their own way. Blending #metoo, post #metoo, feminism, jokes about theatre, twitter threats and a little of whatever you’re having yourself, “Ulster American” delivers an overcooked polemic seasoned with handfuls of satire. Yet if Ireland’s three hander often looks like a hot mess, with not everything tasting as well as it might have, it still has more than enough flavour to entertain and amuse, delivering an agitating, stimulating, and energised dark comedy. One which might very well see Ireland, himself, having the last laugh.
If two make for uncomfortable company, three make for a riotous crowd as Oscar winning actor, Jay Conway, theatre director Leigh Carver, and playwright, Ruth Davenport, gather in Leigh’s London apartment the night before rehearsals begin for Davenport’s latest play. A legend in this own mind, Jay is a silver foxed man’s man who loves the sound of his own resonant voice, regaling the much younger director as they await the arrival of Ruth. Tales of Hollywood, of being a recovering alcoholic and true blue feminist, of his excitement at playing an Irish hero in Davenport's new play all pour forth as Jay prowls like a caged animal about the effeminate Leigh’s room. As competing masculinities are being performed, often to hilarious effect, Jay posits a hypothetical rape question over Leigh’s nervous glass of wine. The act opening the door to full on conflict shortly after the arrival of Ruth.
Initially overawed, Ruth, a Chekhov chick, (meant as a compliment Jay insists) with a self-serving streak disguised as moral self-righteousness, is soon performing her own brand of feminism wherein the king is dead, long live the queen; let the moral beheadings begin. Starting with the fact that she, like the hero in her play, is British and not Irish, that she has complicated views on the killings of Catholics, and is not having her play changed into an Irish nationalist folktale even if some might consider it reads as hate speech or Protestant propaganda. Something Jay didn’t seem to mind too much when he mistakenly thought it was Catholic propaganda. As tensions heighten it soon becomes clear Ruth’s not averse to side-steeping her moral indignation to get her own way if it means she might win herself a Tony and meet Tarantino. For this was never about the touted truth of theatre for any of them. It was always about power. About who has it and who’s going to have it. For as is often the case with power, in Northern Ireland as with gender, its rarely shared successfully for any sustained period in an unstable environment. And when power shifts rather than being shared, it’s often because it's taken, not given. Usually through a bloody act of violence. Even if, in this instance, the cumbersome onstage violence barely staggers towards its lacklustre crescendo.
Covering similar ground, though less successfully, to his superb Cypress Avenue, as well as wading into some theatre lampooning waters, Ireland’s sharpshooting script hits hard and fast. Showing a Beckett-like love of the absurd, as well as a Godot-like hatred of critics, “Ulster American” is much less a dramatic rollercoaster and more akin to a verbal firework display. It might seem overwhelming at times, with another moral rocket burning skyward before the last one has started to fizzle out. But when the sparks disintegrate you realise there’s nothing concrete left to hang your hat on. No matter how meaningful you thought it all appeared. Indeed, if “Ulster American” were a road map, it would be filled with endless detours always leading down another cul-de-sac. So much so one begins to suspect that Ireland enjoys being a professional agitator. Lighting fuses so he can sit back and watch how people react to the explosive hard questions. Hoping to inspire a search perhaps, rather than offering hard answers.
If all that remains is Ireland’s acid wit, it’s a vicious enough treat well worth the price of admission. Yet there’s also “Ulster American’s” three crowning performances. A superb Darrell D’Silva as a self-obsessed Jay, a terrific Robert Jack as the light limbed Leigh, and an equally terrific Lucianne McEvoy as the robust Ruth playing the boys at their own game, make three potentially cartoonish characters, often crowbarred into various moral standpoints, feel very much alive. Something director Gareth Nicholls does a sterling job negotiating. Even if Becky Minto’s small and lifeless set often looks like it’s being swallowed up by the Abbey’s main stage.
If the greatest trick the devil ever played was making you believe he didn’t exist, the greatest trick David Ireland might have played is in allowing some people believe there’s a position he favours in his “Ulster American” blame game. An equal opportunity satirist, Ireland is probably laughing up his sleeve, understanding that no one onstage has the right to claim the moral high ground. Indeed, claiming to have it is what creates the violence in the first place, whatever your reasons, gender, identity or nationality. When opposites react rather than respond one form of tyranny replaces another. Seeing reconciliations fail when, turning over the album, the song remains the same. All of which makes “Ulster American’s” final image a telling one.
Don’t go looking to “Ulster American” for answers. Go looking to be unsettled. And if you do advocate for one or another position, you might want to look closer. For three wrongs don’t make a right in “Ulster American.” But they do make for some hilarious, thought provoking, and superbly performed theatre.
The Abbey Theatre present Traverse Theatre Company and their production of “Ulster American” by David Ireland, running until April 20.