Northern Ireland playwright David Ireland talks to VIEW editor Brian Pelan about his latest work Cyprus Avenue, which deals with a loyalist called Eric who is convinced that his newly born granddaughter is Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams
Despite the age of digital technology, some things still don’t run smoothly. I had lined up an interview with playwright David Ireland through a Skype connection. After it failed to connect, we switched to mobile. A few minutes into our interview the line suddenly went dead. Was it something I had said?
It turned out that David had forgotten to recharge his phone but once we started again, he was soon in full voice and the words poured forth. We started off by talking about his new play Cyprus Avenue which features Stephen Rea in the lead role as a loyalist called Eric.
The play has been performed in Dublin and London. Is there any chance of it coming to Belfast, I asked “Yes,” replied David. “I think they are trying to make that happen. There is a possibility of it going to New York, then it might be put on in London again, then Belfast, followed by Dublin. It all depends on Stephen Rea's availability. Everybody is very keen to see it performed in Belfast so hopefully, it will happen.”
Did he have any views about how a Belfast audience might react to it? “I honestly don't know how an audience will react,” said David. “I’ve had a lot of work performed in other cities. And particularly when it’s about the Troubles people always say: ‘Oh how do you think a Belfast audience will react?’ It’s as if they think there would be riots or something. There has never ever been a volatile reaction to my work in Belfast. People in other cities always seem to react with offence on behalf of the people of Belfast.”
I was interested to know why did he decide to locate the play in middle-class Cyprus Avenue in east Belfast.
“I wrote the play when I was living in Castlereagh Street in east Belfast. I used to walk up to Cyprus Avenue when I was writing it. There has always been something magical about it. It’s such a beautiful street. The play is pretty autobiographical and I think in some ways it was about my fears of becoming middle class. I come from Ballybeen, Dundonald, but obviously becoming an actor and having plays staged in the Abbey pushes you into starting to associate with people of a different class than you grew up with.
"I went to England for the first time when I was 17 years of age to do a drama course. Everyone, apart from me, was English. One them called me ‘Irish’ at one point. I was shocked and really taken aback. I couldn’t comprehend how he could perceive me as being Irish.”
I asked David about the line in the play said by Eric. “Maybe I’ve been led to believe I’m British by successive governments of the English crown to further their own nefarious purposes.” David replied: “One of the reasons that line is in the play is that a lot of people think that Protestants only believe they are British because of colonialism and that it's not a real identity. Not long after that line; Eric says: ‘But is that all I am? A puppet? A patsy? Is that the sum of all I am’? It may be a case of Eric saying there may be some historical truth in the colonialism argument but it is not everything he is, It’s more complicated than that. “
What are your views on loyalism now,” I asked “My views on loyalism are changing all the time. It's changed since I wrote the play. I wrote it not long after I got married and moved to Glasgow.
"My wife and I started to talk about having children. I think it was also about my own fears of becoming a father and bringing a child up in Glasgow and coming from Belfast. What is my culture? What is my identity? I would call myself loyalist. I would call myself British. But am I going to take my son or daughter to Orange walks and Rangers games? I can’t see myself doing that. There is so much violence, aggression and complicated history associated with those things.
"I still love to watch an Orange walk or a Rangers game. But as I get older, I find myself becoming increasingly distanced from it all. I still love Belfast although I haven’t been there for years. I feel very disconnected from what is going on there.
“I keep writing about Belfast but increasingly it is about the Belfast of my childhood. It appears to me though that Scotland is becoming more like Northern Ireland since the independence referendum took place. Issues of being left or right didn't matter very much when you were growing up in Northern Ireland. It was about whether you were a unionist or a nationalist.
"And now it feels that Scotland is becoming like that. The dominant conversation now in Scotland is whether you are a unionist or nationalist.
“I’m less comfortable calling myself a loyalist now and that’s partly because of the whole Scottish referendum thing. There are a lot of distasteful things about Scottish nationalism and I’ve felt alienated from it. There is something distasteful about all forms of nationalism. I have thought that maybe it's time to stop calling myself a loyalist.
"I want to write the kind of things I would want to see. I don't really know what other people should be doing or what we all should be doing. I just try to follow my own individual path. I tend not to go to the theatre very much. I get most of my inspiration from TV and movies. I find it hard to get inspired by anybody in Scotland.”
I asked what did he think about what Gerry Adams would say about the play? “People who have seen the show have tweeted him about it but he has offered no kind of response.”
In the play, Eric appeared to be having some kind of psychotic breakdown. Was this in anyway a representation, I asked, about what he thought about the present state of loyalism.
“A lot of people who have seen Cyprus Avenue consider it to be a very anti-loyalist play. There was even a reviewer in London who took issue with it and said it was clearly written by an Irish Catholic Republican which he obviously got very wrong. Vicky Featherstone, who directed the play, said it was about the problem of loyalism which I think is accurate.
"Often in loyalism, we have defined ourselves as being in opposition to something which becomes a cul-de-sac. It’s not a pro-loyalist play or an anti-loyalist play. It’s about my own feelings about growing up in Northern Ireland.”
To read the full Arts issue go to - https://issuu.com/brianpelanone/docs/arts_issue_39_new/1?e=3341601/30000297