Brilliantly and brutally, Cyprus Avenue condenses four centuries of sectarian conflict into a comfortable home in a leafy suburb of Belfast – then detonates it.
Playwright David Ireland draws us quickly into a situation of blackest absurdity: Eric Miller (played by Roy Barker), a family man and hardline Ulster Protestant, is convinced that his infant granddaughter not only looks like the Irish republican politician Gerry Adams but actually is.
The baby has “Fenian eyes”, says Eric to his shocked wife Bernie (Jude Gibson) and daughter Julie (Amanda McGregor). Later, to prove his point, he draws a beard on the baby with a black marker.
Already, Eric’s conviction has moved beyond quirky and into the realms of the dangerous.
Kicked out of the house, Eric wanders to a park where he encounters the fast-talking, pistol-wielding Slim (Lloyd Allison-Young), a would-be gunman looking for first blood.
Eric has the perfect target for this “angel of the UVF”.
Unfolding in a psychiatrist’s office, Ireland’s story blends rupturing laughter, hallucinatory drama (is what we are seeing real, or is it something in Eric’s mind?) and shocking moments of blunt verbal and physical violence.
And although we’re half a world away from Belfast, insulated from or ignorant of Northern Ireland’s Troubles (which claimed more than 3600 lives between 1966 and 1996), the playwright’s melding of specific political, religious and social issues with universal considerations of patriarchy, control and entitlement is inescapably compelling.
Indeed, viewed through the lens of the epidemic levels of male violence against women in this country, there are moments – some difficult to watch – in which this play strikes very close to home.
The violence is unsettling, but so too is the playwright’s insistence that we don’t dismiss Eric as an unfeeling maniac. His behaviour raises questions: Is he acting out trauma? Is he losing his faculties? Is he the end-product of a culture that brooks no doubt, no opposition, no evolution?
Played in a chic white space (by designer Ester Karuso-Thurn), Anna Houston’s production is a tightly-focused 90 minutes of fine acting and ratcheted tension. The Ulster accent is a difficult one and though there is some wavering as the play’s moods shift, it is capably reproduced throughout. The stage violence is served full strength.
The acting is excellent across the board. Barker seamlessly shifts between affability and mania. He makes Eric’s confusion and rage seem very real.
Allison-Young is knife-edge funny as the mercurial Slim (building on a not dissimilar role he played in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the New Theatre last year).
Gibson and McGregor perform strongly in roles that are plainly written by comparison. Branden Christine shines quietly as Bridget, the implacable psychiatrist drawing out Eric’s delusions, enduring his insults and observing the mayhem without comment.
Highly recommended – but take the trigger warnings seriously.