The cast took their bows at the end of the show before heading for the wings, the lights came up in the auditorium and I was just sat there wowed, overwhelmed, and excited about what I had just seen. I was at the Royal Court alone but what I would have given to have turned around to someone and gone, “That was one of the best productions I have ever seen.”
Cyprus Avenue is astonishing. Subversive, horrifying, hilarious and clever. It wraps up an examination of the legacy of trauma, sectarianism, nurtured hatred, and violence in a production that leans more to comedy, even farce, than drama. That seems a nightmare proposition, but David Ireland’s incisive, nuanced writing is perfectly executed by a phenomenally talented cast, led by Stephen Rea, and helmed beautifully by Vicky F in a minimalist production.
And yet, and yet…
As I headed for the exit, doing my best to patiently wait as my row packed up their things, I heard a couple of rumbles – “not for me,” “not what I was expecting, “didn’t really like it” … And I was like, WHAT. HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE? DO YOU EVEN UNDERSTAND HOW GOOD THAT WAS?
Obviously, this was all internal, everyone. I’m not about to pick a fight when I need to get to the tube station but on that way home all I could think is, did I get this wrong? I thought it was magnificent – how could anyone not see this? And I thought and thought and thought.
So, look, it gets a little spoiler-y from here on in, but this is what happens when a play rattles around your head for hours.
Eric Miller (Stephen Rea) is a Belfast Loyalist. But though The Troubles may be over he is still fighting that war every day in his head. His PTSD is obvious. But when he meets his five-week old granddaughter he becomes convinced that she is Gerry Adams. Bizarre, ludicrous – but a situation that quickly escalates beyond being a joke. Especially for his wife (Andrea Irvine) and daughter (Amy Molloy).
The pace is whippet-fast as Eric battles his family, frustrated that he what he sees as clear as day is, to them, a sign of madness. The language may not be to everyone’s taste – Eric is racist, misogynist and his opinions of the Catholic community… Well, he does not choose his words carefully – but I suspect that it is the violence that has unnerved some.
In a production this funny, the brutality of the finale is shocking. Which is, of course, part of the perfection in its design. But it is violence that makes victims out of women and children. Again.
I wrote a review not so long ago of a Martin Crimp revival that focused on how tired I am of seeing women being killed on stage and yet, here I am, evangelical about another production that contained much the same. Am I a hypocrite? Was I too blindsided by the craft and talent on display to fully realise the extent of the misogyny? Is this what the audience members were referring to when they said it wasn’t for them?
I’ve been bouncing this around in my head now for a few days, and my opinion of this production has not changed – I still think Cyprus Avenue is a remarkable piece of writing, and this is an exquisite show – and fundamentally this is because of context.
Women are the victims of violence, domestic or otherwise. We know this. But whereas Martin Crimp added the murder of an estate agent unnecessarily to a play about greed and the amorality of the property ladder, David Ireland depicts that when a man is still fighting a war in his mind, it manifests itself in horrors inflicted upon the women in his life. And that is what Cyprus Avenue is all about – it is all funny until someone dies – and the legacy of The Troubles is still manifesting itself.
The violence, when it comes, is deliberately restrained – there’s nothing glorious or eroticised about it – yet its sparing depiction does little to reduce the horror, which is again the wanted reaction. The comedy disappears and instead we are left with the brutal reality that Eric’s wife feared but that the set up had cleverly distracted us from.
So, a week later and after having re-run this play again and again through my head, I can agree that i don’t like the violence but it is the very source of that violence that is examined, right here. And it is examined so well.
Royal Court, London, to March 23, 2019.
Tickets from £12.
All production images by Ros Kavanagh.