I’ve been wondering if you are a sign. A manifestation. In your darkness, your feminimity. Your youth…
Directed by Vicky Featherstone, David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue returns to the Royal Court Theatre after a three-year hiatus. Starring Stephen Rea as Eric, a man who has lived his whole life in Belfast, we meet him during his first visit to a psychiatrist. His initial conversation with Bridget (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo) – the health professional in question – doesn’t get off to the best of starts, but it does highlight to the audience the fearless way that sensitive issues such as culture and identity will be broached.
Why Eric’s there at all isn’t at first obvious, but during the natural line of questioning, we find more about his strained relationship with his wife Bernie (Andrea Irvine), his daughter Julie (Amy Molloy) and his grandchild.
If there is one aspect of Eric that is consistent from beginning to end, it is his insistence on being ‘truthful’ and the precise definition of his words being used. His ‘inability’ to sugar-coat his opinions and feelings inevitably leads to friction, misunderstanding and being perturbed by his ambivalent feelings that he ‘has’ to acknowledge.
As a black comedy, Cyprus Avenue deftly straddles moments of hilarity and acute observations with jaw-dropping developments. Central to the ebb-and-flow of the play is the extent that Eric wrestles with his self-defined identity as a Loyalist from Belfast. But in his quieter moments – when he isn’t with family members who take umbrage with what he does or doesn’t say – the most ‘disturbing’ questions plague his mind. What if he wasn’t really British? What if after a lifetime of emnity towards the ‘Fenians’, the modern, secular United Kingdom has no place for the likes of him? What if history decides that he’s been Irish all along?
Much of the ‘heavy lifing’ in the play is borne by Rea and even when events veer towards an absurdist bent, we totally believe in Eric’s earnestness as nothing he says is ‘meant’ to be funny. Adékoluẹjo’s Bridget ushers a state of calm into the proceedings, though even she is momentarily surprised at times by Eric’s ‘candidness’. One suspects that Irvine’s Bernie has had the last straw, after decades of Eric’s ‘quirky’ behaviour. Molloy’s Julie, meanwhile, is initially more ‘tolerant’, but understandably upset by later developments. It is, however, Chris Corrigan’s ‘Slim’ whose ‘larger than life’ persona holds a mirror to Eric’s thinking and personifies the absurdity of making hostility one’s raison d’être. Together, Slim and Eric are hilarious in terms of the assumptions they make, but taken to their ‘logical’ conclusions – terrifying.
Throughout Cyprus Avenue, a tightrope is ‘walked’ between black humour and voicing uncomfortable ‘truths’. The play’s denouement shouldn’t be so shocking because the ‘breadcrumbs’ were there all along. Still, just as history’s shown us time and time again, just because a course of action is irrational, doesn’t mean there aren’t people insane enough to carry them out. Just ask Dr Strangelove…
© Michael Davis 2019
Cyprus Avenue runs at the Royal Court Theatre until 23rd March.