by Carol Rocamora
Brace yourself for a traumatic ride. Cyprus Avenue is one of those deceptive dramas that begins with a stock situation – a man in a psychiatrist’s office – but soon veers off the rails and crashes like a horrific train wreck.
David Ireland’s explosive new play, a co-production with the Abbey Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre now playing at the Public, concerns Eric Miller (played by the amazing Stephen Rea), a seemingly mild-mannered middle-aged man who has lived his whole life in East Belfast. A staunch Ulster Protestant and British loyalist who hates the Irish Catholics, he’s internalized his country’s identity crisis, and can’t seem to shake off the historical/political conflict that has rocked Northern Ireland for 400 years.
So Eric’s obsession has turned into a full-blown psychosis. He’s convinced that his baby granddaughter looks like Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin – the anti-British left-wing Irish republican party dedicated to the unification of Ireland, and the object of Eric’s intense hatred. That conviction has driven Eric to do something about it –– and that terrible “something” is what his psychiatrist (Ronke Adékoluejo) is trying to get him to discuss, in the play’s taut 100 minutes.
This is a play that keeps pulling the rug out from under your feet. The series of flashbacks, in which we see him holding his baby granddaughter in his arms, are both harrowing and at the same time hilarious. To the shock and disbelief of his daughter Julie (Amy Molloy) and wife Bernie (Andrea Irvine), Eric has taken a black magic marker and drawn a beard on the baby’s face (it’s a doll, by the way), to determine whether the likeness to Gerry Adams is accurate and his suspicion is justified.
The absurdity intensifies in an ensuing scene with a terrorist named Slim, during which Eric and his new associate plot an unspeakable act of violence based on Eric’s conviction. This can’t be happening – can it? – we think, laughing at the outrageousness of it all, just as we did in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, wherein an IRA terrorist goes on a killing spree to avenge the murder of his cat.
But this playwright’s intentions are dead earnest. He’s writing about prejudice, bigotry and racism – mindsets that drive people over the cliff and into the chasm of psychosis. Like Martin McDonagh who explores the absurdity of terrorism, like Sarah Kane (Blasted) and Edward Bond (Saved) who write about senselessness of violence, Ireland is a dramatist who commands our attention, despite the price we pay. His play transcends the topicality of Northern Ireland’s tragic history (the title comes from a Van Morrison song, and refers to the street where Eric lived in East Belfast). Indeed, it’s relevant to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, our own Confederate/Unionist conflict, and any other historical conflict wherein those who live in the past bring the tragedy into the present.
Director Vicky Featherstone choreographs the mounting tension with skill and precision on Lizzie Clachan’s exposed, corridor-style set. The ensemble is superb. Stephen Rea is riveting in the role of Eric – alternatingly paranoid, cunning, tortured, and tragically irredeemable. He’s a coiled spring, and you can’t take your eyes off him, not knowing when he will snap and how he will strike. As the clear-headed psychiatrist, Ronke Adékoluejo is the moral center of the play, and Andrea Irvine, as Eric’s wife, shows appropriate outrage at her husband’s violent outbursts. Amy Molloy is deeply affecting as the daughter who challenges her father, while also showing compassion. Chris Corrigan is utterly outrageous as Slim, the Plato-quoting terrorist.
It’s a dangerous play and a hard one to watch, but it will stay with you long after its shocking ending. The plaintive Irish eulogy that daughter Julie sings before the closing moments will still be ringing in your ears.
Photos: Ros Kavanagh
Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland, directed by Vicky Featherstone, at the Public Theater until July 29.