Having opened in February at the Abbey, David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue arrives at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in what can only be described as a stonking week for director Vicky Featherstone, whose X opened downstairs a few days ago.
Cyprus Avenue has at its heart the gruff Northern Irish voice of Stephen Rea, who plays Eric Miller, a loyalist who lives in a post peace process daze, uncertain of who he is, scared to acknowledge an Irish dimension exists alongside his British identity, suspicious of any retreat from the fighting and the mindset which supported it.
And he thinks that his newborn granddaughter is Gerry Adams.
The play dramatises Eric’s overflowing brain, with its outdated and sometimes humourous confusions. He shifts back and forward in time, confused and angry like Willy Loman. The pristine carpet of Lizzie Clachan’s design is over-trodden and muddied with contradictions. He romanticises the Irish, their songs, their eyes, their fellowship, and he dreams of being a part of it. He knows he is British but he doesn’t feel it – or is it the other way around? He knows his granddaughter is not the president of Sinn Fein, but he draws a black marker beard on her just to make sure.
Like Gary Mitchell’s riveting peace process plays and Ron Hutchinson’s 1984 belter Rat in the Skull, in Cyprus Avenue, for the most part what is dramatized is traction, opposing forces that are deadlocked, that have gone through too much to forget or forgive. In this case they are focused into a portrait of a single character. We care about Eric, we sympathise with his crisis of identity.
And then David Ireland makes us say, “Fuck him”. The play dives into oily black terror. And that’s all I’ll write about what happens. But Eric’s words are so revealing:
“I love God. I’m not ashamed to say it. I have devoted my life to God. Or tried to, to the best of my abilities. But I love Ulster more. It shames me to say it, but if I have to choose between God and Ulster, I choose Ulster.”
I love God. Not ashamed. It shames me to say it. I choose Ulster.
He knows he’s wrong. He does REDACTED anyway. Even the UVF skinhead would-be terrorist (a wide-eyed and sneering Chris Corrigan) is more reasonable than this relic.
I walked out of Cyprus Avenue not with these words ringing in my ears, but Macbeth’s:
If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo,
That should applaud again.
Macbeth is the disease. And he knows it.
And he can’t even imagine that he’d praise God for the diagnosis he asks the doctor for. No, he’ll commend him to empty space, and hope that the echo resounds in agreement.
Cyprus Avenue brings you to the point of sympathy for a confused old grandfather, and then shows you its hard limits. Rea is quietly, impassively terrifying throughout. It’s brutal. It’s brilliant. It shivers through you.
Cyprus Avenue is on until 7th May 2016. Click here for tickets.