Sunday 8 December 2019

Theatre: How to astound on Cyprus Avenue

Extraordinary: Stephen Rea and Chris Corrigan in Cyprus Avenue at the Peacock.
Extraordinary: Stephen Rea and Chris Corrigan in Cyprus Avenue at the Peacock.

Emer O'Kelly

Where does one start with David Ireland's Cyprus Avenue? It's a play about psychosis; it's a play about family; it's a play about politics; it's a play about identity; it's a play about hatred; it's a play about Ireland; it's a play about the confusion of the universal human condition. And of course it's a play about perverse and sickening violence.

It is wildly, superbly, wickedly funny, with political incorrectness not so much in your face as shoved unerringly and gleefully down your throat. And it is desperately, horribly sad as it makes brutally psychotic mass murder seem logical… under certain circumstances. Those "circumstances" are terror at the seeming erosion of identity and culture: the wiping of your tribal history from the face of the earth.

Often a clever and insightful study of psychosis can make one think "I'd hate to be inside his/her head" about the author. David Ireland, with his first major play, a joint production at the Peacock between the Abbey and the Royal Court, is different. His approach to the underlying seriousness of his topic is so joyously lopsided in its wisdom that you feel you could sit happily in his brain for a while to watch it working.

"I'm what I was told I was," Eric says defiantly. It's true of us all unless we're lucky enough to step outside that mindset and take a look at what we've been told. But Eric is happy with being a good Ulster Loyalist bigot, reared and living in middle-class Belfast on leafy Cyprus Avenue. As far as he's concerned there's nothing Irish about him, no identification with the nastiness of Turf Lodge and Ballymurphy.

Until, that is, he sees it all being threatened with extinction by the Fenians, and Fenianism creeping insidiously into his world.

That's when he notices something peculiar about his five-week-old grand-daughter; he's not a baby person, but he dutifully cuddles her, only to notice she looks like Gerry Adams. After he's taken a black marker to her little chin, and adorned her "squinty Fenian eyes" with a pair of teddy bear glasses, he decides she IS Gerry Adams, and the downward spiral begins.

The achievement of this extraordinary play is that its Northern Ireland Loyalist suppositions could be smoothly reversed for another cosy down-home nationalist horror. Or spread about the place to deal with "niggers" (as Eric says) or for that matter Indians, Sikhs, Southern Baptists, or whatever you're having yourself. It's Homeric in its compass.

And Vicky Featherstone's direction gives it full, soaring value and force. And of course she is not exactly hindered by a performance by Stephen Rea as the increasingly demented Eric that he is unlikely to better in his future career, no matter what heights it climbs. Blazing support comes from Chris Corrigan as an equally demented Loyalist vigilante, with Julia Dearden and Amy Molloy as Eric's doomed wife and daughter, and Wunmi Mosaku as his psychologist.

There's elegantly spare design by Lizzie Clachan, and sound by David McSeveney with a superb fight sequence by Bret Yount.

Cyprus Avenue is a marvellous, astounding play, given an astounding production.

Director Mark O'Rowe says in his programme note for his production of O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock (at the Gate in Dublin) that before reading it he had expected the play to be "something of a museum piece… creaky and very much a play of its time." That time is 1922, at the height of our savage Civil War. O'Rowe claims to have changed his mind when he read the text, but sadly the mind change does not seem to have influenced his approach.

The production is so slow as to be almost leaden. Whether the pace is responsible for the dismaying absence of passion, or the cause is an inability to inspire his cast with the intensity of the piece, is unclear. But this is O'Casey detached from the gut-wrenching horror of former friends dreading the knock at the door which will presage their being dragged out to die on a lonely roadside. A master of portraying violence convincingly in his own work, O'Rowe has completely missed its impact in O'Casey.

The production also seems detached from the stench and squalor of tenement poverty with hunger never far from the door; and detached from the pious cruelty that immediately condemns a girl "in trouble" as a "fallen woman". They are all part of Juno and the Paycock, but this production fails overall to identify with its tragedy, much less being able to express it.

Three of the cast rise above the pedestrian: Derbhle Crotty in the title role is wearily forceful, her level of awareness that without her the family will fall apart pitiably recognisable. (She does, however, look far too fresh for the role: a 45-year-old charwoman in a Dublin tenement in 1922 would have looked seared and elderly). Marty Rea is a wily Joxer Daly with moments of tattered dignity peering through the snivelling leech that is his daily persona. And Ingrid Craigie is O'Casey perfection as Mrs Madigan, cocky and easygoing until she feels herself being battened upon.

Caoimhe O'Malley does her best with the thankless role of Mary, and Karl Shiels is impressive in the minor role of the Mobilizer. For the rest, Declan Conlon as the Captain and Brid Ni Neachtain as Mrs Tancred are adequate, but both are very far from the best of which two such fine actors are capable.

Peter Coonan's Gerry Devine, the trade union organiser supposedly the incarnation of O'Casey himself, is utterly wooden, as is Emmet Kirwan as the pretentious and dishonourable Bentham, while Fionn Walton's supposedly haunted Johnny projects neither terror nor bitterness.

Joan Bergin is responsible for the costumes which are period perfect, but far too spanking-clean and pristine.

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