‘Anything but tame’: Ben Brooker on Traverse Theatre’s Ulster American
In the final week of the Adelaide Festival I saw The Second Woman, the extraordinary durational performance in which 100 men perform the same scene opposite actor Nat Randall over a period of 24 hours. Ulster American seemed, at first blush, a tame proposition by comparison.
Like The Second Woman, David Ireland’s darkly satirical play – a critical and commercial hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and now, in a case of life imitating art, apparently bound for the West End – is concerned with the politics of gender: especially how they shape, and are shaped by, interpersonal power dynamics. But the similarities end there. While The Second Woman is expansive and oblique, its critique of gendered oppression worked up through gradual, and ultimately devastating, accumulation, Ulster American is fast and furious. It’s a torrent of words which, in the long tradition of a certain kind of ideas-based British theatre, drives its debates straight to the surface through dialogue rather than dramatic action. It is anything but tame.
The setup is simple: an English director, a Northern Irish playwright, and a Hollywood star meet in an apartment the night before the start of rehearsals for the premiere season of the play that has brought them together. Jay, the actor (played by Darrell D’Silva with commanding gruffness and a not-altogether-convincing American accent), sees the play as an opportunity to connect with his “Irish roots”. Ruth, the playwright (a compellingly flinty Lucianne McEvoy), believes it is her ticket, via a promised introduction to Quentin Tarantino, to movie stardom. In classic three-hander fashion, the director, Leigh (a simpering Robert Jack), increasingly frantically mediates between the two.
The play – Ireland’s, that is, not Ruth’s – hinges on two sources of conflict. There is Ruth’s ardent Protestantism (she insists, to the running bemusement of the Brexit-obsessed Leigh, that she is British rather than Irish), at odds with Jay’s professed Catholicism. And then there is the outlandishly misogynistic hypothetical posed by Jay while waiting for Ruth to arrive, the ripples of which fan out all the way to the play’s cathartic, and genuinely shocking, conclusion.
These men are not the bigots of old. Rather, they’re as proudly woke as they can be. Jay has read James Baldwin (not to be confused, as Leigh does in one of the play’s best jokes, with Alec) and believes white men must be held accountable for their racist language. “Guys like you and me are taking a back seat now,” Jay tells Leigh in typically overbearing fashion. Later, as their parading of feminist credentials descends into hilarious oneupmanship, Leigh professes to wishing he was transgender, an example of the same kind of inverted sexism that allows for Jay’s fawning claim of Ruth’s play that “only a woman could write with such relentless compassion”.
The men’s liberal grandstanding, the play makes clear, is a kind of theatre sustainable only as long as their real power – to maintain and advance their privilege at the expense of women, and to say and do as they like no matter how pointlessly offensive – is never challenged.
And Ruth does challenge it. Firstly, by refusing to alter her play to keep its star happy (Jay wants his lead role changed from militant Protestant activist to a “Catholic in the IRA”), and secondly with a mobile phone primed to deliver an explosive tweet – a “Chekhov’s gun” for the 21st century if ever there was one. As the play ramps up from conversational jousting to violent, revealing discord, Ireland lays bare the fault lines of an age in which national, gender, and global politics are being anxiously redetermined.
At times the play has the feel of one of Yasmina Reza’s bitter contemporary farces (I wasn’t surprised to see the Scottish premiere of Reza’s God of Carnage among director Gareth Nicholls’ credits) but, where Reza’s plays often don’t seem to be about much more than what happens on stage, Ireland’s – touching on #MeToo, the weaponisation of social media, and, though some of the finer points will be lost on international audiences, the fates of Britain and Ireland after Brexit and The Troubles – is savagely plugged into the zeitgeist.
If the play has a significant flaw, it is that Ireland is not beyond sacrificing the psychological consistency of his characters in order to make a point or drive the action forwards. It’s hard, for example, to square Ruth’s resistance to commercial-minded interference with her play, and her star-struck desire to make it in Hollywood. Happily, this production – incisively directed by Nicholls, and with a fine set by Becky Minto – tends to emphasise its strengths rather than its weaknesses. It’s likely to be around for a long time, and Australian audiences can be grateful to have seen the original cast who, for the most part, realise their characters with considerable skill and comic flair.
Ulster American, by David Ireland, directed by Gareth Nicholls. Designed by Becky Minto, lighting design by Kate Bonney, composition and sound design by Michael John McCarthy. Performed by Darrell D’Silva, Robert Jack and Lucianne McEvoy. Traverse Theatre Company and the Adelaide Festival. Closed.