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Cyprus Avenue

"one of the most urgent works I have encountered"

The history of Northern Ireland's civil strife is one of broken men, writes Anna Houston. Broken men not unlike our own.

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Cyprus Avenue: Cities of Broken Men

Date: 12 May 2019

I travelled to Belfast earlier this year and met with an interface community mediator. His name was Paul.

He’s a tall man, lean, shaved head, moves like a boxer, wary but generous. He counsels political prisoners and ex-inmates and liaises between police and the paramilitary gangs that roam the housing estates of Belfast.

On an icy cold day in February he gave me hours of his time, tracing the history of Northern Ireland across the tablecloth on which we ate lunch, patiently answering my barrage of questions:

What was it like to grow up in Belfast?

How were you impacted by The Troubles?

What do young people in Belfast think about the Troubles today? Can you still feel the undertow of all that violence?

And – in hushed tones – was Gerry Adams really a member of the IRA?

Over lunch, Paul told me about his work mediating between interface communities, counselling former members of the IRA and UVF.

He told me about the countless men brutalised by the three decades-long conflict of the Troubles, men who had committed violent atrocities in the name of Irish Republicanism and British Loyalism – horrific acts of violence from which they and their victims will never recover.

Belfast is full of broken men, he told me.

Broken men

I was in Belfast for a few days to research the personal and political terrain of Cyprus Avenue, David Ireland’s brilliant play written and performed mere months before Trump and Brexit tilted the world on its axis.

In a political landscape increasingly governed by populism and prejudice, Ireland’s play reads as an eerily prescient work, a prophetic piece of drama that excavates the grim core of sectarian extremism with savage humour and bleak brutality.

I first read Cyprus Avenue in June of 2018, a few years after its triumphant London premiere at the Royal Court Theatre. I met this play in the shadow of a horrific act of violence here in Australia.

On May 11th of last year, in Western Australia’s Margaret River region, a 61-year-old grandfather killed his wife, his daughter, her four children, and then himself. It was Australia’s worst mass shooting since Port Arthur.

I remember feeling hollowed out by the headline. It was devastating. And unsurprising. Horribly unsurprising. Before the tragedy of Margaret River, the worst shooting since Port Arthur occurred in 2014, when a farmer shot his wife and three children before turning the gun on himself.

Victims of mass shootings in Australia are usually the gunman’s family – and the shooter will almost always be a male.

Each week, I read of yet another woman killed by a current or former partner. I wish I could be surprised by these murders, but it is harder and harder to sustain disbelief when a man harms the people closest to him.

I finished the play and put it aside.

A few weeks later, on July 5th, in Sydney’s Pennant Hills, a 68-year-old father entered the home of his estranged wife and shot dead his two teenage children.

I reached for the play again.

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It leaves me breathless, this play. It is sharp and funny and terrifying and desperately sad. It is a densely complex work that counterpoints absurd comedy against gut-wrenching pathos, plunging us deeper and deeper into the depths of despair. It is structurally astounding, one of the most urgent works I have encountered.

And it is about a broken man from Belfast.

I’ve never before understood the mental machinery of a broken man like Eric Miller, the central character around which Cyprus Avenue revolves.

He is undoubtedly the product of a time and place, but the threads of violence that underpin his psychology are not confined to Northern Ireland. His mindset may be indelibly shaped by Unionism, but his behaviours and beliefs are universal codes for a particular brand of masculinity.

Approaching the gendered violence of this piece has been a tightly mapped process.

I have felt a great responsibility to pay the debt that is created when theatrically staging such acts of brutality. Asking an audience to bear witness to onstage violence must be done with respect. Informed consent.

Rigorous dramaturgy must be employed to ensure the choreography is truthful, psychologically motivated.

Great care must be taken with performers who are asked to enact these rituals of violence each night onstage, and as always, dialogue is key.

Asking questions, checking in, sharing the burden of what their bodies and minds must travel through each night – this is the bare minimum of what responsible theatre makers must do.

Months later, back home, I am thinking about Paul, the mediator from Northern Ireland, and his description of Belfast as a city full of broken men.

And I am thinking, too, of the broken men in Australia, in the city where I live, in the cities where I grew up. I think of the women and children they broke. What their dreams were. What their lives held. Their hopes. Fears.

Cyprus Avenue asks that audiences do the same. If, for nothing else, to feel the shock and shame and fury that is too often muted in cities of broken men.

Cyprus Avenue plays at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, May 15-June 8

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