ULSTER AMERICAN at Riverside Studios
“A play about crossing the line within a play that frequently crosses the line”
David Ireland’s “Ulster American” touches on just about every topic that gets people’s blood boiling, and in the space of an hour and a half, inflates them in order to puncture them with the sharp skewer of satire that he has become famed for. Somewhere along the line during his career, Ireland has come to think that he wants to offend people. “As a writer, I want to be socially irresponsible” he once stated in an interview about his latest offering. “If you won’t produce it because of the reaction, that’s a very frightening place for us all to be in”. Fortunately for us, his play has been produced. It divided critics at its premiere in Edinburgh in 2018 and is now testing the waters in West London with Jeremy Herrin’s star-studded revival.
The premise is a joke. The old ‘Englishman, Irishman and American’ variety. But that is the only thing it has in common. From the outset, the humour is considerably darker, and the punchline is jet black. Set in real time, the evening before rehearsals start for a new play in London, it brings the three key players together in a night that spirals out of control. Jay Conway (Woody Harrelson) is the Oscar-winning actor taking the lead in the play that connects with his Irish roots. Leigh Carver (Andy Serkis) is the ambitious director who will do anything to get noticed. Ruth Davenport (Louisa Harland) is the Northern Irish playwright whose voice must be heard.
Ruth is late for the meeting, and so we are greeted by the two men killing time by indulging in some shocking banter. Harrelson’s self-aggrandising Hollywood star, Jay, is definitely the alpha male while Serkis, as Leigh, hovers between alpha and beta, unsure when to let his obsequiousness make way for his own voice. Both men are ‘feminists’, or so they say. Both men are deluded. But there is something far more dangerous going on than the mere misappropriation of language and self-appointed labels. And it takes Ruth not only to light the fuse, but also to detonate it. Many bombshells are dropped in the process, provoking the echoing thought in our minds; ‘did they really just say that?’
“You might not want to look at it, but you ought to go and see this play”
The three actors are simply outstanding in their roles. Serkis skilfully deploys the many faces of a politician as he fluctuates between squirming smiles and contradictions, until his real temperament is revealed when he realises the game is up. Harrelson hilariously cuts a ridiculous figure, wielding male self-righteousness like a loaded firearm, while Ruth catches the bullets in her teeth to spit them back. Harland’s character, despite the play attempting to establish a precarious female centric quality, is perhaps the least likeable of the three. Initially starstruck at meeting an idol in Jay, we don’t quite believe her rapid and absolute switch to the dominant, immutable, writer-diva with the authority to dictate that not one word of her script can be altered. Come on, we’re dealing with an Oscar winning actor here!
Among the topics that are ripped apart are national and personal identity, religion, loyalty, power, misogyny, feminism, gender, responsibility, Brexit, politics, territory, the ‘N’ word, #MeToo, culture, censorship, social media, rape, blackmail… you name it. But the focus is drawn back to the power balance between men and women. Words the two men carelessly let spill from their unfiltered mouths are later taken out of context and then used to make or break one another’s careers. Or lives. There is plenty of food for thought as the stakes get higher and higher, and these deplorable characters reach dizzying heights of ridicule. What is alarming, however, is the proximity to reality. The damage of misconstrued words is a genuine threat in our society.
“Ulster American” is a play within a play. A play about crossing the line within a play that frequently crosses the line. The satire occasionally adopts an over-daubed, ‘painting-by-numbers’ style. And the zeitgeist that Ireland vividly expresses gets somewhat washed away as the play dives headlong into farce, and the realms of cartoon barbarity. The violence is less shocking than the dialogue. Perhaps this is deliberate. Are words a more terrifying weapon than actions?
The three actors give thrilling performances that throw moral acceptances into the wind and let us pick up the pieces to try and make sense of them. It is insanely funny and deeply flawed. It will provoke discussion – even arguments, but hopefully not as extreme. You never know though. That is what is so vital about Ireland’s writing. Yes – it is heightened and unreal. But however warped, it is still a mirror to our fractured society. You might not want to look at it, but you ought to go and see this play.
ULSTER AMERICAN at Riverside Studios
Reviewed on 13th December 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Johan Persson
Previously reviewed at this venue: