Written by David Ireland. Directed by Vicky Featherstone.
*I write about plays from a writer’s perspective. Please note this means my blog posts contain spoilers.
Eric is a 70-year-old Ulster Unionist who believes that his five-week-old granddaughter is Gerry Adams. His delusion leads him to unspeakable violence. The play has been both lauded and derided, with walkouts and demands for trigger warnings. It won the 2017 James Tait Black Prize for Drama. The Royal Court’s production of Cyprus Avenue is a revival of its successful co-production last year with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
Cyprus Avenue’s success can be attributed to several factors. Northern Ireland is back on the agenda because of Brexit. David Ireland started writing the play in 2012 and thought it was “irrelevant”. But seven years later, it couldn’t be more relevant. It reminded me of Stephen Jeffreys’ comment in Playwriting: ‘Often the playwright sitting alone in a room is more capable of divining what straws are in the wind than any political columnist or commentator.’
Stephen also predicted that the Achilles story would make a comeback. Eric’s fatal flaw is that he is so paranoid about the threat to Ulster Unionism that he is driven mad and kills his family, who he perceives as a threat.
The play uses humour to draw us in; when I saw it, the audience consistently laughed out loud. And the play teases the audience throughout with the possibility of violence. The suspense drives the play forward. We want to know how this tragi-comedy will play out.
The most successful element of the play, in terms of content, is the way it dramatises the spilt personality of Northern Ireland. Are Northern Irish people Irish or British? Eric identifies as fundamentally British, and hates the Irish, but on a visit to London, people assume he is Irish and he is taken to an Irish pub. Eric questions whether his colonial identity is a real identity at all, and he is paranoid about his identity being erased in the future. This is a powerful comment on the state of the Northern Irish psyche. Both communities are afflicted by this sense of split personality, but it affects Unionists more. If Ireland reunites, the Unionist identity is threatened, while the Nationalist identity will be strengthened. This particular struggle is peculiar to the Northern Irish context, but confusion around identity is universal. And, again, confusion about identity has particular resonance in the context of Brexit.
What didn’t work
The play begins and ends with Eric’s appointment with a clinical psychologist. This is used as a vehicle to go back in time to the fateful night in question. This makes sense as a way to tell the story, however, when a play is framed by an appointment with a psychologist, the audience expects therapy to be part of the play. And, in therapy, the character should experience some insight into why they did what they did. But in Cyprus Avenue there is no insight. The appointment is used solely as a device to tell the story of what happened that night. This is a missed opportunity.
The female characters are one-dimensional (I expect this will be a running theme on this blog). If the play had been a monologue, with the characters coming in and out as Eric imagined them, then this would be forgivable. But the play is book-ended by realist scenes with the psychologist, and the scenes with the daughter and mother are played as if we are watching what actually happened on the night. As such, there is less of an excuse for the lack of development of the secondary characters.
At the end, the play descends into Tarantino-esque violence. In my view, this was not earned. It was not earned because the underlying metaphor was not clear.
I’ve already suggested this is an Achilles story. But is Eric’s fatal flaw representative of the Unionist community’s fatal flaw more generally? If so, what exactly does the violence represent? Does it symbolise the self-destructive nature of the Unionist community? Or is the claim that in murdering Catholics, Protestants end up killing those closest to them? (Because, for all the sectarianism, Northern Irish people are in the same (post-)colonial boat, and, ultimately, they can understand each other better than anyone else can.) Was it because Eric/Unionists can’t live with the idea of the future being different to the past, with the possibility of Irish reunification on the horizon? It could have meant all of these things and none of them. As a Northern Irish person, I found it unclear. So I wonder to what extent the mostly English audience at the Royal Court understood the subtle politics of it.
The play was always heading toward the murder of the baby. The murder of the daughter could partly be explained by the fact that she was sympathetic to Catholics and wasn’t interested in promoting the Unionist cause. But the wife did not have to die because she did not represent the things that the baby (and, at a stretch, the daughter) represented (Irish republicanism, an Irish future). The manner of the murders was over-the-top, particularly the murder of the baby. Perhaps it was supposed to be a comment on the heinous violence of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, but again that wasn’t clear.
At one point, we see the baby’s pram in a park. This was a nod to a classic play first produced at the Royal Court – Edward Bond’s Saved (1965). In Saved, a baby is stoned to death in its pram in a park by a bunch of disaffected young men. But the violence in that case was earned. After years of strict censorship laws, theatre audiences at the time were not used to seeing violence; this was a breakthrough moment in British theatre. But now, audiences are inured to violence; it doesn’t have the same shock value or same resonance. More importantly, Bond was commenting on the alienation and lack of opportunities for young, working-class men.
There is a certain breed of Irish male playwright – Martin McDonagh immediately springs to mind – who seem to think that being Irish provides license to portray as much pointless violence as they like (and in McDonagh’s case, he is from London, born to Irish parents). Just because a playwright is from or connected to Northern Ireland and the Troubles is not an excuse. If extreme violence is part of the plot, there should be a reason for it. Sarah Kane’s plays are among the most violent. But Kane described herself as a “moralist” and her point was to comment on the awful, inhumane things people do to each other. In Cyprus Avenue, the violence was verging on being there for mere comic effect, or because the playwright just wanted it to happen.
What I have learnt from this is that if a play is a metaphor – which I think is one of the most powerful and effective ways of using the theatre – the metaphor has to be clear to the audience. Of course, any artwork is going to be open to interpretation. But there must be some clarity about what the playwright is trying to portray specifically in a metaphorical play. Obscurity undermines the play and renders it less powerful and potentially meaningless. Cyprus Avenue isn’t meaningless. It gets at a lot of interesting things: the split personality of the Northern Irish psyche; inability to come to terms with the past; uncertainty about the future; the absurd and disturbing racism in the loyalist community and ignorance about other cultures, including other groups living within Britain. But it could have been much more meaningful if the message was clear.
Ultimately, Cyprus Avenue’s success is at least partly due to Stephen Rea’s tour de force performance. It is a vehicle for a great, white, male actor. In less capable hands, the flaws of the play would be more apparent.
Cyprus Avenue was on at the Royal Court from 14 February – 23 March 2019.