Stephen Rea. PHOTO: ROLLING NEWS.IE
By Orla O’Sullivan
“Here it’s okay to say anything you want,” Stephen Rea’s character is told by a psychologist as the play “Cyprus Avenue” opens.
“Really?” says Rea skeptically, clearly new to this experience and unused to accessing his feelings or expressing them. Then, the grey-suited, middle-aged, upper middle-class man who took his seat so timidly comes out with a question that shocks therapist and audience alike. But that’s nothing compared with what’s to come.
“Cyprus Avenue” leads its audience, laughing almost all the way, to a very unexpected and dark place.
This as the audience comes to learn how Rea’s character, who comes from that address, one of the best in Belfast, finds himself undergoing a mental evaluation. What he has done is told in a series of flashbacks depicting the story he tells his therapist.
Rea, a BAFTA winner and Tony and Oscar (“The Crying Game”) nominee, is great, as ever, and the writing not merely shocking, but highly inventive, quirkily funny, thought provoking and highly relevant to the current political climate. David Ireland’s play, named play of the year by the Irish Times last year, is one I expect to stay in mind as others fade.
This co-production by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and London’s Royal Court Theatre is staged by The Public Theater in downtown Manhattan almost like a boxing match. The actors are on a raised square platform in the center across which audience members face each other like opposing sides.
Such staging suits a play that is very much about “them” and “us.” It so happens to feature unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland, but you could substitute white supremacists in the U.S. or far right movements across Europe reacting to a sense of threatened identity under the new globalism.
Rea’s character, Eric Miller, is a unionist who feels the threat from without—in changed attitudes since peace has come to the North—and from within, among his family, and in his own mind.
“Without prejudice we are nothing!” he tells his daughter, reminding her that “we are under siege.”
This is after she, Julie (Amy Molloy) tells him, “As long as people aren’t getting killed anymore nobody cares!”
He goes back and forth between those extremes in his thoughts, from self-identification as “exclusively and non-negotiably British” to accepting the Irish label conferred on him as a Belfast native in a London pub, though that would make his “entire existence… a lie.”
He briefly revels in how freeing it is not to care about labels but allows ideology to trump his experience.
Miller returns to his central preoccupation, the idea that Gerry Adams, “a Fenian,” has somehow become incarnate in his granddaughter
The notion is hilarious when first introduced because it is so absurd and starts just with the suggestion that his granddaughter looks like the former leader of Sinn Fein.
The audience can’t take him seriously. He seems inappropriate, but much more fun, you might say. Miller first appears as a hyper-rational oddity, dryly remarking for example, that his wife Bernie (Andrea Irvine) is “not very scientific” when she coos that the granddaughter is “the best baby in Belfast.”
He shares humorous observations, such as on “reserved” British colonialists. “I’ve often wondered if the English are so self-effacing why they go around the world trying to make everyone be like them.” He is perplexed by the idea of respecting children, somewhat reasonably suggesting, “They haven’t done anything to deserve it”—not like, say, a great soccer player.
The darkness of his psychotic distortions pokes through occasionally, though, as when he associates the idea of loving children with pedophilia.
A baby is the image of innocence and a metaphor for not visiting the sins of the father on the son (or granddaughter).
“Cyprus Avenue” veers from figurative to real after Miller encounters a loyalist paramilitary. (Ironically, he plans to kill Miller as a suspected nationalist). The humor gets increasingly dark and farcical in that encounter with Slim, played by Chris Corrigan, and then the laughs die.
There’s really only one thing that detracts from a riveting 100-minutes of straight-through performance, and that’s Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo trying too hard to be clinical as the psychologist, Bridget.
“Cyprus Avenue” brings Rea back to the Public for the first time in a decade. Don’t miss it.
The title, like the play, is many-layered. It draws in part from a Van Morrison song, which the singer aptly introduces at his concerts by saying, “It’s too late to stop now!”
“Cyprus Avenue” by David Ireland, starring Stephen Rea and directed by Vicky Featherstone runs at the Public Theater to July 29. Tickets ($80) for The Royal Court/Abbey co-production from https://www.publictheater.org/