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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Vicky Featherstone revives  David Ireland’s first full-length play from 2016 – originally an Abbey Theatre co-production with the Royal Court. Lizzie Clachan’s design is lit by Paul Keogan, with David McSeveney’s sound with Bret Yount’s fight direction and Brendan Gunn as dialect coach.


It’s not just a revival of David Ireland’s first full-length play – originally co-produced by the Abbey Theatre and Royal Court in 2016. Three years on it’s a significant revision of this already masterly work that returns to the Royal Court.


It’s again directed by Vicky Featherstone. Stephen Rea’s mesmerising Eric again dominates a strong cast with Amy Molly returning as his daughter Julie with Chris Corrigan’s terrorist-out-of-time Slim. Each of them turn in even more extreme performances – Rea and Corrigan share a demented brilliance. Though playing through 100 minutes it’s shorter by about seven pages, with added political agon and foreshortened scenes.


There’s a moment in this initially farcical drama where Eric’s conviction – that his five-week-old granddaughter is Gerry Adams – gives rise to a folie a deux that turns Rae’s self-excoriating Protestant Unionist Eric into something other. When parable meets paramilitary and both turn mad. When farce turns ferocious and the laughter – lots of it – stops.


The dramatic irony’s that until this point, Eric’s surreal certainties are manageable; though he admits to his psychiatrist Bridget (now Ronke Adékoluejo) he’s been thrown out by his wife for black-markering his granddaughter’s face with an Adams beard, adding spectacles.


He reminisces in a great central monologue about his time in London taken for an Irishman by a ‘London’ Irishman and revelling in it, just for a night. His perception of Catholic otherness is exotic, ‘beards so black they could be Argentinian whoremasters’. Repressed homoeroticsm twines with the ‘straight’ Britishness he asserts the more violently it dissolves: Rae begins to shiver Eric’s core identity like an egg injected with gelignite, which duly explodes.


Ireland pokes every Ulster insecurity, including reverse appropriation. Eric even cedes Catholic superiority in some things, a symptom of his actions. As he tells Bridget, ’They have all the songs. Our songs are pitiful alongside theirs.’ And Irish eyes smile as they kill you. By contrast Protestant eyes don’t smile ‘unless it’s absolutely necessary.’


His ‘Fenian’ songs though elicit a boy’s complaint and Corrigan‘s Slim a UVF para who joined when everyone laid down their arms, is sent in to kill him – he’s ruining the boy’s cultural identity. During this (almost) killingly funny exchange Eric reveals he’s relating this whole episode to Bridget including this dialogue with Slim, disorienting Slim and his own memory, a fleeting touch of comic paranoia turned self-aware. Slim, with anger management classes to go to on Tuesday, finally accepts the baby with ‘Fenian eyes’ in exchange for Eric, if he’ll rendezvous at the same place. Slim, who agrees this is just the thing Gerry Adams would do, needs to check.


In the meantime Corrigan’s coruscating tirade at the thought other ‘Fenians’ are insinuating themselves as babies into other Unionist households describes its own animal howl, adding: ‘They’ve killed us in the war and now they’re killing us in the peace.’ Ireland originally underlined this isn’t one man’s delusion, nor can what happens occur if that was all.


Only tracing Eric’s interactions with Slim and his family can you see how prepared apotheosis is, exceeding expectations. Eric’s PTSD is ancestral – grandfather and father died fighting for Britain – and personal: Eric’s lived through the Troubles and thinks Bernie who’s also done so will condone his later actions. But supremely his agon is cultural.


In the rewrite though Ireland plays with Eric’s memory in other ways. Bridget questions Slim’s existence in that telescoped ending. This unbalances to a too-neat simplicity, where the original’s ambiguity was richer; but it’s a moment only.


Molloy as daughter Julie gropes from concern to reaching out and incredulous fury. At key moments she matches Rea’s implacable Eric. Now in a haunting insertion she rises to sing one tune to the words of something very different. It’s one of the most inspired touches to this revision.


Andrea Irvine’s wife Bernie shows quicker intolerance. If husband and wife interacted more it might herald a more epic scale though we’d lose impetus. Still, where Ireland dilates in this version, it’s to bolster cultural fright in haggard rodomontade. Bernie might have challenged a bit of that.


Adékoluejo‘s Bridget rises to deal with self-imposed dignity Eric’s first hesitant questions: ‘Why are you a n-r?…. You consider yourself British?’ The way she unpicks Eric’s racism – he never met anyone of colour till he was forty-seven – perfectly traces the radius of professional concern. What you don’t see is the chronological sequence of their encounters.


And in place of her final therapy-speak and the unearthly peace Eric feels in the original, Bridget stands in more for audience outrage – in rapid judgmental strokes. I’m not entirely sure it’s in character, but there’s a case for Ireland foreshortening these concluding pages.


Eric admits to his family the first use of the c-word to berate his daughter, given like the n-word above with guarded hesitation, but Rea conveys with wounded but inviolable self-justification that under articulate surfaces something body-snatched exists, more ‘other’ than Eric’s ‘Fenian bastard’. We empathise then suddenly startle in Rea’s magnificently corrugated stare. It’s granitic, not so much lowering as bearing the weight of some inverted pyramid in his final ‘no’. His every twitch and shuffle charmingly belies the terrible swiftness Eric owns.


Lizzie Clachan’s clinical safe-space set – white plush, chrome chairs – literally springs surprises lit by Paul Keogan; and Eric re-illumines his actions in this one room. Its unfussiness complements the remorseless shock of Ireland’s vision unerringly paced by Featherstone. David McSeveney’s sound sideslips angst. Bret Yount’s fight direction and Brendan Gunn’s dialect coaching again ensure a serrated slickness.


Ireland’s leapt into the younger first rank with this astonishing play. His laughter sears mere tragedy to the pitch of genius. With such rompish comedies as The End of Hope and the different Ulster American, it’s clear his absurdism irradiates something more terrible, more human. It’s where hilarity turned horror addresses the hollowness – and absolute necessity – of professional healing and reconciliation.


Last time Cyprus Avenue made The Public Theater, New York. It still hasn’t reached the West End.