It would seem that the driving aim of David Ireland’s satire is to make his audience choke on their laughter. A bitterly funny look at rivalry and prejudice in the context of Northern Ireland’s recent history, little is left off limits in this frank two-hander, which offensively touches on everything from immigration to religion. The clue is in the name: what awful things we supposedly civilised beings say – utterances that reduce us to little better than animals.
These provocative, no-holds-barred utterances are communicated via Jimmy and Eddie, two old Belfast schoolmates who run into one another by coincidence at Stranraer ferry port. Jimmy is an actor on the way to an audition for what could be the role of his life, while Eddie is a famous footballer signed to Celtic – two professions that might have been plucked from the heads of daydreaming schoolboys. This chance meeting soon unravels into a rehashing of old grievances and a surfacing of new rivalries, a catalyst for Ireland to pick at the ugly underbelly of modern society.
Picking up these characters and placing them in a situation largely liberated from realistic visual signifiers, Greyscale’s production creates the impression of floating opinions, prejudices that characterise not just these two individuals but a wider swathe of society. The absence of any attempt at Irish accents on the part of the performers and the active eschewing of racial stereotypes at the same time as patent racism courses through their conversation puts an intriguing spin on the piece, resisting the possibility that this might become a familiar meditation on turbulent Irish nationality. The troubles might be the backdrop against which Ireland’s fraught dialogue plays out, but the geographical dislocation created by director Lorne Campbell positions these as a symptom of deeper societal problems.
In a similar fashion, Fly Davis’ design expands on the underlying concerns of Ireland’s text rather than its literal settings. National tensions – allegiances as strong and as fiercely fought over as football club loyalties – are ever present, alluded to by a partially obscured image of the union jack that finds its counterpoint in the green and orange benches on which the characters sit. As Eddie’s involvement in the Mel Gibson film that Jimmy was auditioning for intensifies the animosity between the pair, a distorted portrait of the director becomes the canvas on which their grievances are painted, a striking visualisation of the twisted shrine of celebrity.
Despite these smart choices, however, the production’s airing of the unspoken ultimately achieves little. Less a diagnosis than a straightforward unveiling, we see the ugliness of racial prejudice, petty jealously and the ruthless desire for fame, but this is as far as the piece goes. Any questions dealing with the why are left unanswered. There is also, for all the offensive subject matter, a sense that the acerbic jokes don’t land with quite the punch they promise. At the close of a swift hour, political correctness may emerge in shreds, but the humour’s vicious barbs fail to fully lodge in the throat.