Content Warning: Racial Slurs, Suicide, Domestic Violence
Can someone be in two places at once? What is Ireland’s authentic cultural identity? Is it appropriate to find humour in turmoil? How dark can dark comedy go before it is simply just dark?
David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue follows Eric Miller, a staunch Unionist who is convinced that “the Fenians” have swapped his new-born granddaughter for Republican politician Gerry Adams. It is a play that documents the modern day complexities of Ulster loyalism through one man’s mental collapse. His paranoid delusion is allowed to play out on stage through flashbacks in a therapy session, reaching its logical conclusion through stomach-turning acts of cruelty, moments of deliciously dark comedy and ending with the unsettling echoes of maniacal laughter.
As they arrive, the audience is greeted by Eric Miller (Peter Morrison), grim-faced, and sunk deep into an armchair. Indeed it seems he has been sat there forever. He answers his black, female therapist’s questions with a monosyllabic bluntness that matches his gaze. The audience is audibly shocked by his visceral use of racial slurs. Ireland repeatedly drops these bombs throughout the play to coax the audience into starting to critique the relationship between identity and prejudice. Eric desperately returns to the mantra that we are “nothing without our prejudices” but, thanks to Morrison’s portrayal of barely contained mania, Eric’s fanaticism slips between moral repugnance into comedic absurdity. He is trapped in his own logic and is left looking sadly ridiculous as he tries to grapple with the possibility that his world-view may be wrong. Ireland’s play insinuates that it is not discrimination but rather the ability to be fluid, to live between opposing things, whether it be Irish and British or feminine and masculine, which allows us to achieve a stable identity.
Indeed the staging reflects this sense of opposition. The stage is almost split in two; on one side the 1960s minimalism of the psychiatrist’s office and on the other, a lived-in family home, both connected by the spherical lamp which, hanging above the action, works as both living room light and solitary moon. The delicate lighting changes take you seamlessly from clinical room to the warmth of home, to the cold twilight of the Belfast suburbs.
The play is deeply funny too. Nothing is as darkly ludicrous as seeing a grown man drawing a beard and a tiny pair of glasses onto his granddaughter’s face in order to confirm his warped suspicions, or indeed the off-beat but hysterical character of Slim (Jacob Baird), a balaclava-clad, peacetime UVF terrorist with anger management issues. Baird and Morrison nail the Northern Irish accent perfectly. But at some point the laughter has to stop, the death of Julie (Aine Higgins) is flatly horrific, hard to watch but admittedly necessary to drive home the play’s consideration of gut-wrenching extremism. When a Protestant is able to “choose Ulster over God”, a father choose his daughter’s murder over conceding defeat, any humour present is one fuelled by shock.
10-13th October – Run ended
Image: Erica Belton