Playwright David Ireland wants to provoke in his new play Ulster American. In satirizing uptight Brits, ridiculous Hollywood actors, compromising sycophants, and the all-too-flexible politics of artists in the face of their ambition, he wants to push as many buttons as he can. His approach is all so wild it beggars belief which should allow for an audience to revel in the darkest of comedy. But it never quite reaches its goal. Maybe 2018 is just a little too much to be effectively satirized. Maybe Ireland is not as committed as he needed to be.
Ireland pits three characters against each other. Jay (a ferocious Darrell D’Silva) is an over-the-top, self-involved, recovering alcoholic, global movie star who is as dumb as a box of hair but with “fierce” convictions about things he doesn’t fully understand. Leigh (Robert Jack with great comedic timing) is the director of the West End play Jay is scheduled to star in and is doing whatever he can to appease this star who holds all the power, including engaging in answering an offensive question Jay asks. Ruth (Lucianne McEvoy with steely-eyed seriousness) is a Northern Irish playwright who enters the scene late due to a car accident with her mother. She finds herself increasingly at odds with both Leigh and Jay as the men attempt to rewrite her play, recontextualize her meaning, and generally run roughshod over her opinions. When an Academy Award is aggressively plunked down on a table as the arguments become more heated, it becomes Chekhov’s gun.
Ulster American comes across like Ireland desperately wants to play in Martin McDonagh’s moral morass sandbox with the same mix of violence, provocation, dark comedy, and aggression. Ireland is working with a variety of conceptual hot potatoes but his level of engagement in them—particularly gender—is minimal. Worse, Ireland is having a little too much fun with the bad gender politics of the characters. Oh look mansplaining. Oh look talking over a woman. Oh look proclaiming feminist credentials while not being a feminist. Isn’t it hilarious. <dead-eyed stare>
The “offensive” question that gets raised in Ulster involves rape and while this on-stage discussion led one audience member to furiously exit early on in the play, I found it less disturbing than the other behavior played for laughs. Maybe because we are at a point in our daily discourse where hatred towards women is so out in the open now: where the polite masks of everyday sexism have been ripped off and the grotesque faces of misogyny are worn by many proudly. Sadly, it takes a lot to shock me right now and this objectionable material felt more like the juvenilia of boundary pushing for the sake of the act.
While at times the most effective controversial aspect of the play was the ongoing argument over Ruth’s identity—she calls herself British, Jay and Leigh argue she is Irish. The casual dismissal of her by her friend Leigh is painful:
“But the fact of the matter is that most audiences who see this play, theatregoers in London by and large will see you as an Irish writer and will receive this as an Irish play. The notion that the Ulster Protestant community is in any way British is absurd to most real British people.”
Ruth argues, “You don’t get to decide who’s British and who isn’t.” Leigh counters, “Well we sort of do. That’s the point. That’s what the Empire was all about. Which is why imperialism was such a shameful chapter in our history.” So while arguing against imperialism, Leigh, a self-described feminist who was raised by communists, cannot help himself but argue from a point of self-proclaimed superiority based on such imperialism.
For a time, Ireland’s investment in those identity politics looks like the play’s real interest. But then Ireland continues to heap more and more questionable choices upon the characters such that any of these questions gets overrun with mishegoss. The potential nuance underneath that could be quite intriguing gets lost in the more pronounced shark-poking happening in the script.
Each of the characters proclaim their beliefs but in the end none of them stand for much of anything—which may be Ireland’s point. When confronted with power, privilege, capitalism, and ambition each of these characters fold on their own convictions to preserve their self-interest or status, make money, or get this play made. There’s lots of performative wokeness in the world and a lot of it on display by the characters. But the play’s itself works in a similar manner. It’s performing provocation but does not commit to its own truth. If it’s not taking its own threats seriously, how can I?
Ulster American is on at the Traverse Theatre until 26 August 2018. Click here for more information.