Writer: David Ireland
Director: Gareth Nicholls
Reviewer: Ciara L. Murphy
An Englishman, an Ulster Unionist, and an Irish-American try to put on a play. This is not the opening line to a poorly delivered joke, but it is the premise of a poorly written play.
David Ireland’s Ulster American split the critics in 2018 during its Edinburgh run. It’s hard to fathom why. Ireland’s over-reliance on tired stereotype coupled with chronic over-acting on the part of the ensemble makes Ulster American very easy to categorise.
Ruth Davenport (Lucianne McEvoy) has written a play about the Troubles. Oscar-winning actor Jay Conway (Darrell D’Silva) is set to take on the starring role: a hard-core Belfast Loyalist with a rampant desire to eradicate Fenians. So far, so predictable. But once Conway discovers that he must, by his own logic, betray his Irish Catholic ancestors by playing a Loyalist murderer, problems arise. It’s then up to the fussily camp English director Leigh Carver (Robert Jack) to try and save the day, and the play.
I wish someone would have saved me.
This reviewer could (maybe) look past the tired stereotypes if this play had anything worthwhile to say. But despite the play’s best intentions it only serves to reify the problematics of masculinity in the post-#metoo world rather than to challenge them. Ulster American is no doubt intended to be a scathing satire on masculinity and power, but it actually just re-treads the old road of the ever-problematic ‘Troubles Theatre’ genre (see Ireland’s trademark unionist-bashing for proof). Ireland merely shows us what we already know is there and it feels stale and laborious. Do we really need an entire play that centres around the premise of a ‘hypothetical rape’? No. We really do not.
There are, despite these criticisms, some undeniably powerful and affecting moments in the piece. The presentation of the double-jeopardy faced by Davenport as a female, Northern Irish, and Unionist playwright is scathing and very close to the bone. It’s refreshing to see this representation borne out on stage. There is also no denying that the play is funny, but in the same way as one might laugh at a Paddy Irishman (or in this case Ulsterman) joke.
Director Gareth Nicholls could have saved the day here by fostering the few nuances of the play through steady direction. Instead, D’Silva, Jack, and McEvoy overshadow some of the undeniable power and effectiveness of the piece through rampant overacting and constantly playing for laughs.
I will leave Ireland with the last word. At one point, Jay observes that “the only thing I ever want to read from a theatre critic is a suicide note.”
Dorothy Parker would have known what to do.
Runs until 20 April 2019 | Image: Sid Scott