Gleefully tricksy and determined to push every possible button until all is but broken, David Ireland’s Ulster American is by no means a comfortable watch. But hell, it’s difficult to not love its guts.
David Ireland’s anarchic Ulster American reminds me of a 3-year old I used to babysit. Gleefully tricksy, eternally testing the waters of what it can ‘get away with’ – and determined to push all of the buttons on whatever it can find until said object is all but broken. Like the infant down the road, it messes with your mind, is eternally one-step-ahead, cannot be trusted and makes you question – repeatedly – what an appropriate reaction to it is. But hell…it’s difficult to not love its guts.
It’s a play about a play, the audience becoming voyeurs of the night before rehearsals commence. Rachel (Lucianne McEvoy)’s West End writing debut is set in Belfast in the midst of the Troubles – unapologetically pro-Unionist and true to her own identity of British Protestant. Darrell D’Silva’s Jay, an American movie star/douchebag/buffoon, has been drafted in to ensure tickets fly out the door – and toxicly-faux-‘woke’ director Leigh (Robert Jack) is happy to massage anyone’s ego as long as the play goes ahead, and his own career trajectory stays on track.
Jay, of course, hasn’t picked up the script before agreeing on the deal and boarding the flight to Heathrow – but even before he cottons onto the show’s political perspective and how at odds with his own Irish-American identity a monologue demanding the killing of Fenians is, Ireland’s mischievously on-the-bone farce has started and you’re made to squirm in your seat more than you’re quite prepared for.
I just about understand the dramaturgical presence of the rape riff (prior to Rachel’s arrival, the two male characters discuss if they’d be able to rape someone if a gun was held to their head and their lives depended on it) – but it’s the one moment which seems overwrought and unnecessary. It, of course, establishes Jay’s utter stupidity and callousness – and Leigh’s troubling ability to shake off all moral principles if they are to get in the way of his ambition to running the National Theatre – but there’s undoubtedly other ways for Ireland to achieve that aim without quite so much recklessness. There are bucketloads of material already in Ulster American which adequately stirs, provokes, riles us up and treads the ‘transgression tightrope’. The rape riff, which brings Princess Diana – of all people – into proceedings, will inevitably be more than a step too far for some, and a step surely not necessary to achieve the objective.
This aside though, the writing is sublime – highly intelligent socio-political farce, with a Jacobean tragedy’s messy ending. Ireland winds up the script like a clock, carefully establishing credible (albeit eccentric) premises but letting the whole thing unwind, like the most successful farces, with inevitable but startling logic. McEvoy and D’Silva’s performances are formidable – both characters as aberrant, and for the most part despicable, as the other but performed entirely convincingly and sincerely. Robert Jack’s Leigh is less successful for me – the only caricature, rather than a person I can conceivably imagine existing. I guess there’s a small chance I just hated his character so much that I’m failing to see the extent of the craft beneath, in which case, credit to him for making me feel that way.
All in all, Ulster American is brave, brutal and refreshingly contemporary theatre intended to move the #MeToo conversation on further, and inevitably provoke debate in the process. You likely won’t want to enjoy it, but you will. You’ll likely not know quite how you feel about it afterwards, but I think that’s the point.