Ulster American (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

Posted: August 13, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: David Ireland      Director: Gareth Nicholls


Have you heard the one about the Englishman, the Irish woman and the American? Yes, any jokes beginning similarly have long been branded politically incorrect, but all the rules of PC are put through the shredder in David Ireland’s brutal, excoriating and blisteringly funny black comedy.

The Englishman is theatre director Leigh (Robert Jack), who is hosting a meeting on the eve of the start of rehearsals for his production of a new play by Ulster writer Ruth (Lucianne McEvoy). The star is to be American Oscar winner Jay (Darrell D’Silva) who is the first to arrive. The setting is Leigh’s London flat, which becomes what Monty Python would have called the room for an argument, a long one that goes on unabated for close to 90 minutes.

The hero of Ruth’s play is a terrorist with the Ulster Volunteer Force. Jay is of Irish Catholic descent, possibly with associates who had funded the IRA and with no understanding of what the Irish troubles had been about. Leigh stands in the middle, aware that Ulster is part of the United Kingdom, but not seeing it as British. Ruth is definitely British and definitely not Irish. Before she arrives Jay asks feminist sympathising Leigh the blunt question: if forced at gunpoint to rape someone, who would he choose? Jay boasts of advances in American civil rights to Leigh, who thinks that James Baldwin is one of Alec’s younger brothers.

In Gareth Nicholls’ relentlessly aggressive production, all the accepted values of modern life are challenged and overturned. Sectarianism, nationalism, feminism and racism are in the firing line, latent prejudices and misunderstandings are exposed and gaping wounds are reopened. Can it be that the liberal codes that we thought to be set in stone are no more than paper covering deep cracks in society? Can these be the cracks that led to the vote for Brexit or the election of Trump? Possibly, but we can mull over the serious stuff afterwards as there is little time to do so between the laughs while the play is going on.

The acting is splendid. D’Silva’s bullish Jay has the arrogant swagger of an egotistical Hollywood star, practicing his “Belfast Dick van Dyke” accent and always carrying his Oscar with him to prove his credentials and, maybe on this occasion, use as a weapon. He meets his match in McEvoy’s fiery feminist, right wing Ruth, more concerned with ensuring that her play reaches the stage unchanged than with being at her sick mother’s bedside. In the middle, Jack is a particular joy, his slightly camp and panic-stricken Leigh, staring like a rabbit in the headlights as horror after horror unfolds and trying to act as arbiter while always making things worse.

Ireland’s hilarious play makes us laugh until it hurts, but it also asks us to question exactly why we find it so funny and the answers could be disturbing.

Performance date: 7 August 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com



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