Does the world need the play, Cyprus Avenue, by David Ireland?
It’s possible some might argue no for fetishising delusion and serving it with overwhelming portions of brutal domestic violence.
However, others might say it uses dark humour to serve uncomfortable observations about humans, albeit through the lens of Ireland’s bloody political history.
Such polarisation is to be expected with the latest production by Red Phoenix Theatre, given this play was written by someone whose early life was traumatised by growing up in East Belfast in the 1970s at the height of “The Troubles”; a 30-year period of Northern Ireland history in which Irish nationalist Catholics fought to reunite with the Republic of Ireland while unionist (loyalist) Protestants fought to stay part of the United Kingdom.
During this time, human life, and even religion, were worth less than “love for country” and as with any such cause, a trail of human waste was left in its wake.
In Cyprus Avenue, proud British East Belfast resident, Eric (Brant Eustice), is disturbed to see a likeness of sworn enemy and Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, in the face of his new granddaughter. His fixation on this notion disturbs his daughter, Julie (Emily Currie), and wife, Bernie (Lyn Wilson), to such an extent that he is asked to leave the family. We learn aspects of the story through flashback sessions with his psychologist, Bridget (Rhoda Sylvester), leading up to his egging on to commit horrible violence to rid his family tree of the Catholic imposter by Protestant paramilitary, Slim (Brendan Cooney).
In the first act, we chortle our way through Eric’s storytelling, as he explains his warped, “logical” interconnection between his plight as a British person (not Irish), who is fighting the good fight to be decent amid the “unjustified” claims and agitation from Catholics. His literalist personality has no capacity for nuance or softening of expression, in his world, everything is black and white. Through his recollection of events, we touch on universal themes, especially one close to home in which impoverished historical understanding ferments bile against “indigenous” inhabitants on behalf of “noble invaders”. In the second act, we descend from notions of quaint delusion into the depths of broken, twisted, terrorist thinking and action. Empathy for our protagonist leaves the building.
Brant Eustice’s performance is a masterwork. He is Eric. There is not a moment, whether in conversation with other characters or in his long, deliciously long soliloquies that we are ever beyond his thraldom. There is some magnificent word play by David Ireland, but it is Eustice who breathes life and thought and process to the damaged worldview being constructed.
Director, Nick Fagan, has shaped Eustice’s role with breathtaking modulation, pace, tone, and volume are micromanaged to great effect, in stark contrast to his other characters who, ironically, despite having better grip on reality, have been directed as primarily fixed as loud and shrill (Julie, Bernie, and Slim) or diminutively reserved (Bridget). On that note, this audience member would dearly love to see Sylvester’s chair repositioned to face the audience a little more to aid projection of her voice, which currently disappears into an upstage void from where Eustice holds court, facing his audience directly.
The sharp contrast between character styles does offer extra subtext to the content of this play, especially as it continues to simmer in one’s subconscious long after the curtain has fallen. After two hours of witnessing a frenzied spiral from delusion to death, the audience is stunned into despondency, and left to mouth Eric’s words, “so that’s that then.”
As Libby Drake, co-founder of Red Phoenix, says in the program, the company strives to present a range of theatre from gentle pieces to confronting, they have lived up to this promise with full-throttle offer of the latter in Cyprus Avenue.