In Ulster American, a loudmouth American actor, an obsequious English director and a strong-minded Northern Irish playwright meet up in a flat for the first time. It sounds like the set-up for a new sitcom, complete with audience laughter, but this situation comedy gradually derails into a violent Tarantinoesque stand-off.
David Ireland’s dark comedy, showing for the first time at the Traverse Theatre, is explosively relevant, touching on Brexit and #MeToo. The premise revolves around a play that the playwright Ruth has written about the Troubles, which Leigh will direct and Jay will star in. But they all have startlingly different interpretations of Ruth’s play, and it is when these interpretations collide that things start to get messy.
The acting is for the most part superb, although Robert Jack (Leigh) and Darrell D’Silva (Jay) sometimes play their roles too much for laughs. Jack’s character is often deliberately stiff, whilst D’Silva is self-consciously over-the-top and overbearing. This contrasts sharply with Lucianne McEvoy (Ruth), whose performance is for the most part played straight and naturalistically.
Much like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Ulster American explores the psychology of three characters trapped inside a room together, their temperatures rising and their patience growing ever thinner. They discover troubling details about each other which forever change their relationships and have damaging consequences for all involved. The issues which the play raises – from the slipperiness of one’s nationality to the insidious nature of misogyny – are important, and for the most part dealt with well. It is a shame though that Ulster American is a comedy, because a lot of these important issues end up being rounded off with a cheap gag.
At times, the jokes go too far – especially when Jay and Leigh discuss who, if they were forced at gunpoint, they would rape. Ulster American critiques the misogyny of these two white men, but that does not diminish the fact that these chats about rape are still played for (and receive) raucous laughter. A debate about male sexual violence is crucial and necessary, but the musings of two men is surely not the appropriate place for it.
It is also troubling that in the play’s content warning, only ‘strong language and graphic violence’ are mentioned – not the frequent references to rape, which could prove deeply distressing to a victim of sexual assault. The violence, meanwhile, is certainly graphic but its cartoonish quality stops it being truly shocking. The language is indeed strong, although it is telling that neither Jay nor Leigh actually use ‘the n word’, to which they allude at the beginning, suggesting that, even if rape jokes are fair game, some things remain out of bounds.
The play arguably critiques itself when Jay brings up the Bechdel test, according to which “for a work of art to be truly progressive, it must feature two women talking”. There is only one woman in this play, and she is consistently interrupted and silenced by the two men – although this is, of course, exactly what the play is critiquing.
Even if Ulster American is not as progressive as it might think it is, it is without a doubt a riveting, torturously tense play that successfully provokes and challenges its audience.
Traverse Theatre – Traverse 2 (Venue 15)
Image: Traverse Theatre Company