Review: Theatre, Ulster American

Ulster American Robert Jack, Darrell D’Silva, Lucianne McEvoy

“Is it ever OK to rape someone?” asks Jay Conway, the scenery-chewing Irish-American Oscar-winner about to take the lead in a West End production of the new play by hot young Irish playwright Ruth Davenport. (Okay, she “identifies” as British, but more of that later.)

He’s been riffing in a self-regardingly provocative way with the play’s director, Leigh, a timid northerner who’s graduated to the metropolitan elite. We’ve already had the N-word, Ice Cube and James Baldwin (mistaken, of course, for one of the acting clan). And now this. What if there was a gun to your head, Jay probes.

For him, it would have to be Lady Diana. “Some good might come of it,” he muses. Leigh finally gives in, and goes for Thatcher.

It’s at about this point the first of several walkouts began at the Abbey’s opening night of the Traverse production of David Ireland’s play. Not long after, Leigh, in the way this play often seeks to preempt its own critique, is talking about “dramatic constructions” of extreme violence not implying approval of same.

Does Ireland qualify for the same licence to offend? Is it okay to be this crass? The answer, you feel, has to be yes, for any artist. Or, perhaps, “yes, but you’d better have a good reason”.

Here, the off-colour rape stuff is an ill-judged McGuffin. It bookends, violently, the meat of the play: a frantic farce that arises from our trio’s mutual cultural incomprehension.

We have the “Irish writer” who’s actually British; the English director indifferent to such nuances; and the American who’s “Irish” but has never actually been there — Ireland gleefully sets them clashing. It’s often hilarious, landing punches on a checklist of timely targets: sexual and gender politics, identity, the North, Brexit, and the Irish cultural industry.

Leigh and Conway are essentially caricatures, but they are delineated nicely by Robert Jack and Darrell D’Silva, respectively. Lucianne McEvoy, as the ambitious Davenport, manages to be feisty but not shrill.

A final escalation of violence and the way McEvoy’s character is embroiled in it is, however, problematic, unconvincing, and clumsy. A play that’s been trying to have its cake and eat it finally can’t.

Final performance Saturday night

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