Stephen Rea and Chris Corrigan. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
By Fern Siegel
Identity is a loaded word, especially as
politics shift. In Northern Ireland, that seismic turn, explored in David
Ireland’s subversive-absurdist play Cyprus Avenue, becomes a fiery
cauldron of emotions that fuels the unthinkable.
There is fierceness to paranoia and prejudice
that Eric (Stephen Rea) captures with the thrust of a finger and a jagged walk.
He is like a caged tiger waiting to spring. An Ulster loyalist, with a hatred
of Irish Catholics and Republicans, he fears a profound loss: his Protestant
Unionist British identity.
In short, he believes the Fenians have invaded
his East Belfast, Northern Ireland home — in the form of his 5-week-old
granddaughter. To him, she resembles Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the
political party dedicated to the reunification of Ireland.
Adams is his sworn
enemy and in Cyprus Avenue, a co-production between the Abbey and the Royal
Court now at the Public Theater, misplaced anger turns lethal at warp speed.
Living in an upscale neighborhood in Belfast, Eric finds himself isolated from his family. His wife and daughter adore the
newborn, whose father is never mentioned. (Eric lost his own father in
wartime.) That omission, in part, promotes a larger worry: His refuge has been
infiltrated by a foreign entity.
The women love the baby; he sees only a threat
to the life he has built. Yes, Eric is mentally unbalanced, but Ireland’s larger point is that historic experience and a traumatic childhood can twist
In one of the play’s strongest scenes, Eric
remembers a night in a pub in London, when he was mistaken for one of them,
the Irish. That experience acts as a trip wire, activating a greater
“Without prejudice we’re nothing! If we don’t
discriminate we don’t survive!” he tells Slim (Chris Corrigan), an Ulster
Volunteer Force member. Is Slim real? Is he an hallucination? What unites them
is a hatred of Irish Catholics. Anger unleashed can veer out of control. Its
toxic masculinity is driven by identity politics and complicated by historic
Eric’s delusions are told via sessions with his
British therapist (Ronke Adekojuejo) and endured by his wife (Andrea Irvine)
and daughter (Amy Molloy).
Irvine and Amy Molloy. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
The women function largely as backdrops to
Eric’s paranoia. They are the voices of sanity in an increasingly frayed
landscape, littered with screeds that have, at times, a dark comedic edge. The
Irish Troubles are complicated — and often-unfamiliar terrain to American
audiences. Thanks to Rea’s unrelenting performance, long-held hatreds are
portrayed in layered terms.
It’s not that we condone his actions or
epithets; it’s that Ireland skillfully mines the influence of culture, family,
tradition and dogma. What Eric’s therapist calls the “diabolic mess.”
How far would we go if threatened? Or as the
dangerously tormented Eric mourns, his nation is “sleepwalking into a united Ireland.”
A reality he cannot endure. Conspiracy theories are ideal fodder for dramas,
especially when they delve into larger issues of self-definition and the
madness that springs from fear.
Molloy and Stephen Rea. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Lizzie Clachan’s exposed white set is the
clinical canvas on which Eric’s story is told. Director Vicky Featherstone
neatly ratchets up the tension; Cyprus Avenue is a taut work that charts
the hideous arc of sectarian angst. It’s also elongated; shaving 10 minutes
would eliminate some of the repetition and strain.
Still, this is Rea’s show, and he delivers a
riveting performance. Aided by strong supporting players and a noteworthy
Corrigan, who convincingly captures the insanity of the blinded partisan, Cyprus Avenue is disturbingly memorable.
“I will not consent to my own destruction,” Eric
insists. His answer will haunt audiences and ideologues alike.
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. New York, NY (Through July 29)
For tickets: www.publictheater.org/Tickets/Calendar/PlayDetailsCollection/17-18-Season/Cyprus-Avenue/
Running Time: 100 minutes without an intermission