Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
We missed Ulster American at the Fringe last year, but we couldn’t miss the buzz surrounding David Ireland’s latest play: the high praise and the damning criticism, the controversy, the hype. So we’re delighted that it’s back at the Traverse for a ten-day run. Now we can see for ourselves precisely what the fuss was all about.
Right from the start. we know we’re in the ‘high praise’ camp. Darrell D’Silva swaggers into action as Jay, an alpha-male Hollywood star, expecting deference and devotion, used to being fêted but in denial about his privilege. He’s visiting Leigh (Robert Jack), a mild-mannered London theatre director, who’s clearly desperate to please the celebrity who’ll ensure his latest project is a sell-out. As they await the arrival of Ruth (Lucianne McEvoy), the Northern Irish playwright in whose drama Jay will take the lead, the two men make conversation, with Jay predictably dominating proceedings. His intense, naval-gazing prattle discomfits Leigh, and the scene is genuinely hilarious – as well as shocking.
The humour here derives mainly from Jay’s lack of self-awareness, and from Leigh’s awkward attempts to disagree without offending him. Jay’s a self-proclaimed nice guy; he loves women. He refuses to see how reductive his hypothetical rape questions might be, and Leigh is no better, colluding as he eventually does. I find myself perplexed by critics who’ve condemned the piece for joking about rape. I’m a feminist; I’m primed to bristle. But the joke is never about rape. It’s about two deluded men and their blind spots, about their tone-deaf ignorance. Jay’s forcefulness juxtaposed with Leigh’s nervy twitching is a fascinating dynamic, and the performances heighten these characteristics to great effect.
When Ruth arrives, their hubris is further exposed. Her play – which both men claim to love – is about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and its protagonist is a Unionist terrorist. American Jay, despite identifying as an Irish-Catholic, has never actually been to Ireland, and is having trouble grasping the basic details. What does Ulster mean, exactly? And what’s a Fenian? It soon becomes clear that he has accepted the part without understanding it, and that he’s not at all happy about the themes that Ruth reveals.
From here, mayhem ensues, as the three pursue their own disparate agenda. Ruth and Jay are at loggerheads, while Leigh is stuck in the middle, tying himself in knots to appease them both, and failing miserably. He claims he’s a feminist, that women’s voices need to be heard, but misses the disconnect between these assertions and his constant interruptions and shushing of Ruth; his mansplaining, “What she really means is…”; his rebuttal of her declaration that she’s British (“She’s not.”).
Still, neither man is wholly repugnant: Jay, despite his bombast and bluster, is well-meaning really; Leigh is weak and obsequious, but he’s not unlikeable. Nor is Ruth a stainless heroine; she’s more than capable of using the situation to further her own ends. But she is the only one with a clear sense of who she is – and it’s she who drives the play to its shocking conclusion. McEvoy portrays her as a force to be reckoned with, all jaw-clenched determination and self-assurance. It’s a remarkable performance.
This is a visceral, explosive piece of drama, reminiscent of early Martin McDonagh with its bloody violence and dark humour, and the direction (by Gareth Nicholls) is flawless. The fights (choreographed by EmmaClaire Brightlyn) are the most horribly convincing I’ve ever seen, forcing me to watch through my fingers, and gasp in revulsion. (I see this as a positive.) All three actors are compelling in their roles; the tension between them is palpable.
We leave the theatre talking about the issues raised, and we’re still discussing them hours later. This is riveting stuff and an important addition to the #metoo dialogue.