Fringe Online 2020
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. Costume Supervisor’s Lucy Walshaw, Head of Production Marius Romming, Head of Lighting Johnny Wilson.
Filming at the Royal Court. Vision Mixer Hilary Briegel, Script Supervisor Emily Goodman, Camera Supervisor Paul Freeman, Lighting David Gospill, Sound Supervisor Andy Rose, Vision Supervisor Dave Griffiths, Engineering Manager Jeremy Turner, Post-Production Alice Gordon-Lyons, Production Sarah Hull, Colourist Mark Slobodian
Location Filming Belfast Amourer Steven Templeton, Cinematographer Luciano Riso
The film adaptation was commissioned by The Space and produced for BBC Four by the Royal Court Theatre. It was Executive Produced by Lucy Davies, Jane Featherstone, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson. Now extended till May 31st.
The Royal Court’s contribution to lockdown is to free us into the most comedic harrowing imaginable. A man’s convinced his five-week-old granddaughter is Gerry Adams. Funny. For a while in fact.
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. 2019 marked a significant revision of this already masterly work that returned to the Royal Court’s Downstairs in a larger-scaled production.
This screen version contains brief location sequences too, opening it out though piercing the claustrophobia.
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 turn in phenomenal performances – Rea and Corrigan share a demented brilliance. Though playing through 95 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 Rea’s self-excoriating Protestant Unionist Eric into something other. When parable meets paramilitary and both turn mad. When farce turns ferocious and laughter – lots of it – stops.
The dramatic irony’s that until this point, Eric’s disturbances are manageable, if sleeplessly troubled by history from the start. 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.
Rea almost sings-and-dances a 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: Rea begins to shiver Eric’s core identity like an egg injected with gelignite, which duly explodes.
Ireland pokes every Ulster insecurity, including for Eric reverse appropriation: a Catholic devil-gets-the best-tunes versus dour virtue syndrome. As he tells Bridget, ’They have all the songs. Our songs are pitiful alongside theirs.’ And Irish eyes smile as they kill you. Fenians like Boy George and Baarak Obama. By contrast Protestant eyes don’t smile ‘unless it’s absolutely necessary.’
Eric’s ‘Fenian’ songs though bring Corrigan‘s Slim a UVF para who joined after the peace, sent to kill him – he’s ruining a boy’s cultural identity. During this (almost) killingly funny exchange Eric reveals he’s relating this to Bridget, disorienting Slim: a fleeting touch of comic paranoia turned self-aware. Bridget has her opinions.
Slim, with anger management classes to schedule, finally accepts the baby with ‘Fenian eyes’ in exchange for Eric, if he’ll rendezvous again. ‘It’s just the thing Gerry Adams would do.’
Corrigan’s coruscating tirade – ‘Fenians’ 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.
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 actions.
In the rewrite though Ireland plays with Eric’s memory in other ways. Bridget questions peoples’ 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. In the screened version it’s been shot outside – one of the more inspired touches to both revision and tweaked broadcast.
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 with professional restraint to Eric’s hesitant questions – modified so the original ‘n’ word goes. 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, though now you see Adékoluejo periodically explore Loyalist areas, vivid slogans, as if travelling through Eric’s mind in outdoor footage.
And in place of Bridget’s 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, initially with guarded hesitation, but Rea conveys with wounded, inviolable self-justification that under articulate surfaces something body-snatched exists, more ‘other’ than Eric’s ‘Fenian bastard’. We empathise then 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 stage 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. Laughter sears mere tragedy to the pitch of genius. With such rompish comedies as The End of Hope and the ambitious Ulster American, it’s clear his absurdism irradiates something more terrible, more human. It’s where hilarity turned horror addresses the hollowness – and necessity – of healing and reconciliation.
Cyprus Avenue made The Public Theater, New York in 2016. It still hasn’t reached the West End.