Friday 19 April 2019

Two humours: wry and black

Ulster American

Abbey Theatre


Project, Dublin

The great Barry McGovern in 'Watt' by Samuel Beckett. Photo: Pia Johnson
The great Barry McGovern in 'Watt' by Samuel Beckett. Photo: Pia Johnson

An excoriation of cultural attitudes is wildly funny, says Emer O'Kelly.

Jay Conway is "an Irish Catholic". Mind you, he's never set foot in Ireland. An aggressive, bombastic, misogynistic Irish-American idiot, he's also a Hollywood Oscar winner, and English director Leigh Carver (up and coming) is thrilled to have got him to agree to star in a new play about Northern Ireland (more or less post Troubles) on the London stage. The play is by Ruth Davenport, a stroppy, excited, fame-worshipping Belfast playwright.

The stage is set for another of David Ireland's wickedly excoriating examinations of cultural attitudes in today's society (feminism, #MeToo, Brexit, unionist/nationalist violence fall-out, whatever you're having yourself.)

In Cyprus Avenue, Ireland set the stage by having his psychopathic protagonist asking his black therapist why she was a n***er. In Ulster American, he goes further.

Jay, newly arrived in London, demonstrates his "innate feminism" by asking Leigh what woman he would choose to rape if ordered to by terrorists holding him hostage. Jay's choice would be Princess Di, as her empathy with suffering would have been helped by the experience. This revolting sad fantasy of an inadequate man is flung in the audience's face. If you don't find this funny, the play suggests, you haven't bothered to examine the seeds of male attitudes to women.

That's only the beginning. The moronic Jay has assumed that his character in Ruth's play, a psychopathic killer released under the Good Friday Agreement, is an IRA man, and therefore a Catholic, and therefore entitled to murder Protestants. The discovery that he's a UVF man, and his victims are Catholics, is compounded by the fact that the feminist Ruth denies being Irish, is a Protestant, a Conservative voter, and a unionist who sympathises with the motives of the UVF as the Protestant last line of defence. This begins a descent into mayhem, with Leigh adding more burning oil to the already raging inferno.

How does it end? With appalling violence that couldn't have been bettered by Greek tragedy. As a morality play, Ulster American likes thumbing its nose. It is also wildly, disgustingly funny and designed to offend every cultural bully around.

It's at the Abbey, an import from Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre. Sadly, there's a lot of over-acting from Daniel D'Silva, Lucianne McEvoy and Robert Jack (whose portrayal of a gay man is reminiscent of a Carry On film.) But David Ireland's savage insight and wit can surmount it. Direction is by Gareth Nicholls.


For anyone who has read Beckett's novel Watt and found it disturbingly incomprehensible, there's a solution: get into a theatre as Watt got into Mr Knott's house, and watch Barry McGovern's own adaptation of the book.

Directed by Tom Creed, the production achieves the almost impossible: liveliness, mischief, and wryness while maintaining the essential greyness of smothering despair. (It was written mainly in the period Beckett was hiding from the Nazis in Roussillon, as an exercise, he said later, to keep him sane.)

Watt, obsessed with order, and hearing voices, takes a train journey to work as manservant in Mr Knott's house, a place eerily recognisable as prosperous south Dublin, where the orders are to give the leftovers to the dog. Except there isn't a dog, so one must be found. And a disturbing pair of piano tuners arrive: disturbing because it is usually the tuner who is blind. In this case it is Gall junior, who can see, who does the tuning, while the father remains mute. (Beckett's mother loved musical evenings). And Graves the gardener could come straight from Jimmy O'Dea.

Leaving the unseen Mr Knott's service, Watt is incarcerated in a lunatic asylum (Beckett suffered from depression, perhaps a breakdown, while writing the book, and had come near to one while teaching at Trinity, a period when his mother paid for him to see a psychiatrist).

Watt's reflections are garbled, chaotic, yet their rhythm in this section, in McGovern's cadences, makes for a kind of stoic sense of philosophic endurance. And finally, perhaps as a reminder to himself, Watt tells of his journey to the asylum, his thoughts erratic, always repetitive, and culminating in "fatigue and disgust".

The novel and the play end with a series of addenda, not included, the narrator says, in the "original" text due to the same fatigue and disgust. Among them is the famous "no symbols where none intended.", the ironic phrase so often quoted by those scholars who persist in imputing symbols to the master's work.

Watt is at Project in Dublin, moving next Thursday to the Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire. It is superbly lit by Sinead McKenna and designed by Joan O'Clery.

It's marvellous theatre and, strangely for Beckett, you leave with warmth in your soul.

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