Review: Ulster American (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Festival)

David Ireland’s play looks an Oscar-winning actor taking the lead in a new play that connects with his Irish roots

8. Darrell D'Silva in Ulster American
Darrell D'Silva in Ulster American
© Sid Scott

What a brave, savage writer David Ireland is! There are moments in this play that are so shockingly provocative, so laugh-out-loud funny while simultaneously curl-into-a-ball-and cringe-worrying that I found my mouth was actually open. He can't go there, I thought. And then he did.

Your attitude towards it will depend on how well you tolerate conversations about rape delivered with a kind of Grand Guignol glee and a climax as bloody as any Tarantino film, but with the key difference that the woman is not the victim. Critics will be divided and not just because they are referred to, in another passage of rising hysteria, as "Fucking animals". I loved it, relishing its exhilarating wave of taboo-breaking wildness.

The set up is relatively simple. An English theatre director, Leigh, is sitting in his living room with a famous American actor Jay, waiting for the arrival of a playwright Ruth, who has written a play about Northern Ireland in which Jay has been signed to star. From the off, the mood is nervous. Jay, wonderfully incarnated in a performance of raging energy by Darrell D'Silva is a monstrous puffed-up poltroon of a man, vain and full of entitlement. He has a view on everything, but generally, despite his self-proclaimed feminism and generally right-on-ness, his opinions are as bombastic and repellent as his personality.

Leigh is out of his comfort zone, desperate not to offend his ticket-selling star. There is a wonderful conversation in which he confuses Alec and James Baldwin; another in which Jay insists that the Bechdel who invented the Bechdel test is a man. Then they have an unsettling conversation about rape in which Jay asks Leigh who he would rape – if he had to, at gunpoint, to stop a nuclear explosion.

It is mad and profoundly disturbing, not least because in Gareth Nicholls's fast-paced and tightly controlled production, it is played for laughs. But it is only when Ruth arrives, that full mayhem breaks out, since it emerges that Jay has confused Northern Ireland with the South, and that the part he has agreed to play is one that undermines his romantic notions of his own Catholic background. The look on the faces of Leigh and Ruth when they realise he thinks the Fenians he is required to attack in the script are the British is a joy to behold.

Robert Jack is superb as the weasly, ambitious Leigh, hiding behind his supposed liberal values but desperate to be a success. His rising panic as he realises that his chance to be director of the National Theatre is slipping away in one disastrous encounter is perfectly conveyed. In the more difficult part of Ruth, holding the ring in the shifting balances of power, Lucianne McEvoy is equally fine, conveying the resourcefulness and fierce determination of the writer who sees herself as British not Irish, but never letting her slide into caricature.

The tightness of Belfast-born Ireland's writing, and the superb timing of the direction and playing, mean that the jokes come thick and fast. It's as brash and broad in outline as a cartoon or a Jacobean tragedy – and requires you to suspend your knowledge of how Twitter works for hits dénouement to land. But underneath, the tone and the themes are as dark and sticky as the thickest treacle, asking serious questions about masculinity, political and gender assumptions, colonialism, history and the British attitude to Ulster that nag in the mind even as you pick your jaw up off the floor.

Whispering beneath it all is the question of what theatre itself is for, what constitutes honest writing, what can and can't be said. Are artists only allowed to think in one way or can they think in many? In that way Ireland is able to have his cake and eat it too. I found it thrilling.

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