Before the great lockdown put paid to theatre going I was due to see the opening night of Richard Gadd’s Baby Reindeer last night. Like so much else this has had to go by the board, and I am therefore glad to have challenged myself to an online feast of #30plays30days, especially as it gave me a chance to catch up with Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland.
This play from The Royal Court is stunningly good, although it is not one for the faint hearted or easily offended. It concerns a psychotic episode in the life of Eric Miller, an Ulster Loyalist through and through who has committed some dreadful crime which Bridget, his psychiatrist, is trying to open him up about. It transpires that as part of his breakdown Eric has come to believe that his five week old granddaughter has somehow become the living embodiment of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Immersed in and affected by years of sectarian hatred, Eric feels that he must take action and he does; the results are truly shocking.
It is one of the play’s strengths that it is, for the first two thirds anyway, blackly and hilariously funny. Ireland’s dialogue is whip smart and Stephen Rea’s delivery of it is in the central role is a masterclass in control and timing. However, though laughter may prevail, the audience is made to feel increasingly uneasy and even guilty about enjoying that laughter. Eric’s psychosis deepens and the voice in his head soon becomes made manifest in the person of Slim who represents the once repressed now liberated side of the central character’s persona – the part for whom violence is second nature. This violence erupts with tragic consequences as, one by one, Eric destroys his immediate family. This is done so barbarically that the last twenty minutes of the play are a real rabbit punch in the solar plexus. I don’t think I can recall feeling quite so emotionally winded by a play’s denouement and the earlier laughter is thrown into very stark relief.
Rea’s performance is career defining. Here is a man tortured and twisted into a ferocious avenger spitting venom as his mind disintegrates and his life falls apart. The middle section of the play is an extended monologue and Rea stalks the stage like a caged animal railing against politics, religion and anything else that he can think of. The power of the acting here still comes across on video – live, it must have been electrifying.
The performances of the rest of the team are utterly convincing too. As Miller’s anguished family both Amy Molloy and Andrea Irvine bring intensity to their roles; Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo as the psychiatrist brings some sense of calm and order to the chaos. Eric’s alter ego Slim is another tour de force by a manic Chris Corrigan. He appears with a balaclava, gun and a sense of permanent outrage both to torment Eric and support his plan to murder – however, he can’t do Tuesdays as that’s his anger management class!
Nominally the play is set in the titular Cyprus Avenue – an upper middle class area of East Belfast and the subject of a Van Morrison song which may be interpreted as a man dealing with mental health issues. However, the actual setting (Lizzie Clachan) is stark – appropriately so to reflect the eventual bleakness of the play. Just a couple of seats are used to represent the psychiatrist’s office, Miller’s home and a park bench. The audience are on either side of the stage heightening the sense of entrapment which the protagonist feels. The lighting (Paul Keogan) adds mood and tension. The action is beautifully and fearlessly orchestrated by director Vicky Featherstone and pulls no punches in alternately making us howl with laughter and gasp in horror.
Cyprus Avenue is undoubtedly an important play which leaves us as battered and bruised as Eric’s tortured mind. Watch it if you can … and if you dare.
Production photos by Helen Murray
Cyprus Avenue is available on The Royal Court theatre website until April 26th. It comes with content warnings that the play contains “strong language, discussion of sectarian themes and scenes of extreme violence that some viewers may find disturbing” If you can weather that, however, it is highly recommended (https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/cyprus-avenue-film/)
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