Cyprus Avenue

It's difficult for many people today – and not just those whose lives weren't directly impacted – to really understand the common sense background to what my Mum (and the BBC) used to refer to as "the troubles" in Northern Ireland. How such an inherent belief in one's own sense of right and wrong could drive a passion that seemed only to be placated by hatred, violence and murder. But if you lived through that time with such beliefs engrained as deep as your DNA, then your arguments don't need to 'make sense' to an outside world; they're just right and everyone else is wrong. David Ireland's new play, Cyprus Avenue – a co-production between Ireland's Abbey Theatre and The Royal Court – is a disturbingly, uncomfortably funny, tale of how this unerring lack of disbelief in one's self can lead to a breakdown of epically tragic proportions.

The discomforting intelligence of Ireland's script means that phrases such as these (and the ongoing vitriolic diatribes) draw some gasps from the audience

Eric (Stephen Rea in a generally hypnotic performance that keeps him spluttering like a firework with the longest lit fuse, constantly about to explode for the 1 3/4 hours he is always onstage) is the staunch ‘British’ (from Ireland) Unionist Protestant we see being consumed by what we may think of as bigoted, narrow-minded beliefs. He almost accepts this as such, the cause being “just what I was told I was”, genuinely seeming to believe it makes sense when he says that he doesn't hate but that "if we don't discriminate, we have nothing." At the same time, his in-built prejudice shows through his words – freely seeing it as natural and acceptable to stereotype all blacks as “African niggers”, Catholics as “Fenian cunts” and women as “hysterical” who should “do anything you tell... in the bedroom but have no sexual history whatsoever".

The discomforting intelligence of Ireland's script means that phrases such as these (and the ongoing vitriolic diatribes) draw some gasps from the audience but also continual laughter throughout. It's possibly our nervous reaction to hearing such things being spoken as it is really in no way funny and rather uncomfortable to realise we are dealing with these words as though they're being delivered by a non-PC comic character (like an exaggerated Pub Landlord), rather than by a representation of the dark hatred of a very real man. The words underpin the strength of Eric's true beliefs and his bitterness and lack of understanding at the fact that less people share them. That people have stopped caring enough to fight for and against Unionism – the only important thing in his life, possibly aided by his father being killed when he was an infant – has taken over his mind to make it narrower and narrower and so create its own definition of right and wrong.

This unshakeable ‘belief in his beliefs’ is triggered when he is introduced to his granddaughter (begrudgingly, as he doesn't understand the point of babies, doesn't agree that she is “the most gorgeous, cutest baby in the world” and tells his own daughter that he thought she was “a cunt” when she was a baby). And he screams at his realisation that she IS – no challenge at the absurdity that we again laugh at – Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams. We then watch uncomfortably as he tells his psychiatrist – tells, for he has no reason to explain or justify his actions – what he then did to fulfil what he sees as God's duty to rid Ulster of more “fucking Fenians”.

The whole night's events play out on an over-clean white carpeted square stage with just a couple of white leather chairs on either side. As his actions get more out of hand, this clean veneer erodes and becomes covered with mud, rubbish and blood as though it is his own sanity erupting and bursting before our eyes. His downward spiral is diametrically opposed by the spike in the 'comedy' in the middle of the play with a lengthy monologue where he briefly questions his own beliefs in what it means to be Irish (noting that everyone was blowing each other up... “but then came Riverdance” and everyone suddenly wanted to be Irish), followed by his meeting with Slim (a powerfully scary Chris Corrigan, who really should try to portray this madman with less reliance on screeching and spitting).

This whole middle section will divide audiences – before the tone changes and darkness and violence prevail – due to the tone and style being used. The arguments are played out as stereotyped jokes; there are recognisable name checks of every perceived Fenian from Sinead O'Connor to Graham Norton; Slim holds a gun to Eric's head and tells him “don't turn around” before breaking into the Aswad song of the same title; and they comically acknowledge the invisible psychiatrist that Eric is talking to. It is all disturbing through provoking our unwanted laughter. But for me, it goes on far too long at a tiring fifth gear pace, and is trying to be too clever in too many ways. And Rea is at his least believable – the script almost forces him to 'perform' it as the blackest of stand-up routines, pacing around the stage with over-exaggerated arm-waving that feels 'directed' to maintain visual interest in unnecessary movement, rather than having a truth about how Eric would act. By the end of it, Rea seems unsurprisingly exhausted – to be clear, we aren't looking at a tired Eric, rather the actor playing him.

It's an uncomfortable nearly two hours to manage with no interval and it's all carried or lost by Rea's energy, which at this early stage in the run, already seems a little drained. The supporting cast are really there just to support and are a little underwritten (surprisingly, since the monologues are way overwritten). Wunmi Mosaku as psychiatrist Bridget provides an air of subtle calmness and Amy Molloy (daughter Julie), ably shows the complexities of the pain she feels by hearing the father she loves be so cruel. As wife Bernie, Julie Dearden doesn't really have a role (although a big part in the shocking denouement) and so just potters on and off stage to deliver lines when they're cued – but I doubt she could do much more with what she has been given.

It's unquestionably powerful stuff and it will be interesting to see if the laughter provoked is different when it plays in its home where the recognition and empathy (if that's the right word) may possibly be stronger than in London. I think possibly a third of the script could be cut (a good starting point would be the many, exhausting monologues) to make the story sharper as it comes close to tying itself in knots of creative verbosity rather than aiding character or plot development. But – in a similar vein to I See You's dealing with coping post-Apartheid – another exploration of how people don't necessarily fare better when the outside world deems a situation to have been resolved, makes for an important piece of theatre that should make us grateful for the existence of the work at the Royal Court Jerwood Upstairs.

Reviews by Simon Smith

Dorfman Theatre

Home, I'm Darling

★★
Olivier Theatre

Exit the King

Royal Court Theatre

Pity

★★
National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy

★★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

Julie

★★★★
Olivier Theatre

Translations

★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Eric Miller is a Belfast Loyalist. He believes his five-week old granddaughter is Gerry Adams.

His family keep telling him to stop living in the past and fighting old battles that nobody cares about anymore but his cultural heritage is under siege. He must act.

The story of one man struggling with the past and terrified of the future.