Cyprus Avenue. Written by David Ireland and directed by Vicky Featherstone.
Performed at the Mac Theatre in Belfast (final night Saturday, May 26)
An Abbey Theatre and Royal Court Theatre production.
By VIEW editor Brian Pelan
“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.”
The quote above is from playwright David Ireland who grew up among working-class unionists in east Belfast and later moved to Scotland. I interviewed him for the issue of VIEW (http://viewdigital.org/2016/09/12/latest-issue-view-focus-arts/) which looked at the Arts. This week I finally got the chance to see his drama Cyprus Avenue which was performed at the Mac Theatre in Belfast.
The language in the play was visceral and unrelenting. The audience watch as a loyalist called Eric has a full-scale mental breakdown after becoming convinced that his new five-week-old grand-daughter is the person he reviles the most: Gerry Adams, the former president of Sinn Fein. This leads Eric to agonise over his own sense of identity.
The performance from actor Stephen Rea is breath-taking. He dominates the stage like an angry, wounded, brooding bear, constantly lashing out with sectarian vitriol at his daughter and wife.
Rea, in an interview for the Irish Times in 2016, said: “I mean, it’s killing me to be doing it,” he says about Cyprus Avenue, “but I’d hate not to be doing it. It’s not that one ends up feeling sympathetic to the loyalist position, but you do understand that they are in a cul-de-sac, and one of some tragedy. The character is a tragic figure. In many ways they really don’t know who they are.”
The tight-knit cast; Ronke Adekoluejo as Bridget; Chris Corrigan as Slim; Andrea Irvine as Bernie and Amy Molloy as Julie; keep the comic and tragic beat of the play alive with assured performances.
The reaction from a section of audience was interesting. Laughter abounded from them as Eric delivered one sectarian torrent after another. At times it felt to me as if they were watching scenes from the BBC NI comedy series Give My Head Peace. The latter half of the play induced total silence though.
It would have been interesting to have seen a Q&A with those behind the production and the audience.
The Mac must be congratulated for putting on the play. It deserves to be seen by a wide audience and discussed. I hope further showings can be organised in the future for all those who were unable to get tickets.
The final words should come from playwright David Ireland.
“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.”
On the night I attended the cast received a standing ovation.