Stephen Rea in Royal Court’s Cyprus Avenue. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.
It’s day 12 of my self-isolation after arriving from NYC (much love to NYC!) into Toronto Island Airport where they required a two-week quarantine because of the virus. It was pretty casually asked, but I hunkered down in a lovely Airbnb condo overlooking that same airport and the island of Toronto. As the world restructures itself indoors, the theatrical world has been working overtime to find ways of bringing entertainment and art into our homes. Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley have outdone themselves by doing their soon-to-be iconic #StarsInTheHouse show at 2pm and 8pm every single day into our home via YouTube, talking up and raising money for The Actors Fund and trotting out a never-ending roster of theatre celebs giving us an insiders peek into their homes and hearing them sing and chat about theatre from the privacy of their living rooms. It’s a phenomenal treat for a magnificent cause, as well as giving us something to look forward to every single afternoon and evening. I know it has been a lifesaver for those artists and theatre workers all across America who lost work and are in great financial need, as well as little ol’ me (and you) sitting in our own living rooms looking for even the smallest piece of theatrical pie to bite into and chew the day away, instead of donuts and cookies. Now others are getting into the act, presenting old and new pieces of theatre for us to embrace, and I couldn’t be more thankful for this intoxicating and life-affirming gift.
The Royal Court Theatre and The Space are doing their part, making the phenomenally funny and disturbing play, Cyprus Avenue, available to stream for free on the Royal Court Theatre’s website, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pagesfor one month to honor today World Theatre Day. Directed with an absolute flair for lightness and extreme darkness by Royal Court Theatre Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone, the play presentation mixes a live captured performance from the iconic Royal Court Theatre stage with scenes from the real graffitied streets of Belfast. “Last year we were fortunate enough to make a film of our production of Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland with BBC Four and The Space. We were going to put it up on our website for a month from 27th March – World Theatre Day. We still are. But now the world has changed immeasurably it is an opportunity to watch some theatre, free, at home, safely and remember that when we all return to each other, great plays and great performances which entertain and help us understand the world we live in, like this, will be filling your theatres for you to enjoy. Don’t forget about us. We will be back.” – Royal Court Theatre Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone.
The presentation expertly expands and glimmers with a violent untamed flair, pressing forth into the real world without sacrificing the tremors of dread and horror. First broadcast in September 2019 on BBC Four, Cyprus Avenue arrives firmly intact, just like it did when I saw it on the Public Theater‘s LuEsther stage back in 2018, courtesy of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and London’s Royal Court Theatre. On the small screen, the play still resonates as quite the disturbing treat shifting easily from funny to frightening with a quick neck twisting spiral and yank. Powerfully written by the wickedly crazy David Ireland (Meyer-Whitworth Award-winning Everything Between Us), the play presents an anti-hero that is psychotically upsetting to watch of that what went on before and in the here. This husband, father, and now grandfather, played intensely by the always detailed Stephen Rea (“The Crying Game“, Broadway’s Someone To Watch Over Me) sits quietly and meekly on a white chair in a white squared space designed neatly and cleanly by the set and costume designer Lizzie Clachan (Young Vic/Park Ave Armory’s Yerma), with impeccable stop and go lighting by Paul Keogan (Trafalgar Studio’s Novecento). His name is Eric, and he is asked to explain, in detail, what happened that brought him to this place by the strong-minded and well-spoken young clinical psychologist, Bridget, played calmly and forcibly by the impressive Ronke Adékoluejo (Young Vic’s The Mountaintop). We aren’t exactly sure where he is, but we know that whatever it is that Eric has done, it’s pretty disturbed and unsettling. The violence that hums just under the surface resonates in a disturbingly detached, yet sweet mild-mannered kind of way, and in that contained space, the dirty dense tension begins to climb.
The structure of the psychotherapist as confession taker within a theatrical construct always sits a bit uneasy on my brain (being a psychotherapist myself), as the character of the therapist never really gets to resonate beyond a questioning sounding board (just ask my scene party way back in my college years when she was stuck playing the inquisitive therapist to my wild crazy man act). But within Ireland’s play, Bridget does get to articulate ideas of bigotry and hate in a manner that fascinates, especially in terms of the complicated structure of Eric’s nationalistic overtones. “I don’t consider myself British. I am British“, she states calmly but with a pointed laser of heat and disturbance aimed directly at Eric. We watch as that idea, most foreign, registers within Eric, confusing his ideals and throwing him off balance, although only momentarily. He’s quite the piece of work, saying inappropriate things with ease and with an unchecked sincerity, keeping us questioning the true nature of his detachment and psychotic crack. A Protestant, born and living in North Belfast, he angrily shoves away the title of “Irish” as non-negotiable while spewing hate onto the Irish and the Catholics all the while claiming his innocence and love. Layering stereotypical dimensions on the English-born Bridget, he encloses her within the boundaries of being “African” solely because of her skin tone. Her rebuttals deliver the intended soft blows but rarely leave their mark on the troubled outlook of Eric. His vision rarely falters, and even when it does, it only totters off balance for a moment before righting itself back up, just like a Weeble that wobbles, but never falls down. Their dynamic back and forth, beyond being completely captivating and hissing with Eric’s demented and unhinged anger, becomes a floor map for Eric’s story and the tangled insides of his cultural battle that escalates out of history and into his delusional demented reality.
It’s frightening to watch, even the second time around, especially at a time when we see bigotry and racism flying high and wild within politics world-wide, but to see it played out within Eric’s small tight family is quite another story. His wife, Bernie, portrayed strongly by the centered and forceful Andrea Irvine (Public’s Terminus) and his daughter, Julie, played powerfully and emotionally by the fearless Amy Molloy (Finborough’s Into the Numbers) find themselves face to face with the fantastical and violent escalation of a truly demented breakdown. They stare against the craziness with utter perfect disbelief, trying to comprehend what is firing up inside Eric’s head. Caught somewhere in the tumultuous past of Belfast, where an offer of a pint can whip Eric up into a hateful frenzy of assumed bigotry and homophobia, a malady of vile self-hatred grows. Generations of sectarian trauma convince him that his cultural heritage is under attack, and he must act. We watch in horror as the mental breakdown ratchets upward and outward, paralleled within the impressive sound design of David McSeveney (Broadway/West End’s Constellations) and physicalized by the solid work of fight director, Bret Yount (BAM/RSC’s King Lear). The whiteness of Cyprus Avenue‘s flooring becomes increasingly stained as the demented dirt is tracked in and flung about. The prejudicial mud on the shoes is slowly but clearly rubbed in by the dramatically disturbed but wonderfully constructed Slim, played robustly by Chris Corrigan (Donmar’s Don Juan in Soho). His role is strangely surreal but authentic, focusing around the baby carriage that is the centerpiece of their bigotry and aggressively unhinged hatred. The park scene between Slim and Eric, in some aspects, seems to fly beyond the boundaries of the real world, spiraling into a territory that seems oddly erratic and absurdist. At first, I didn’t think that connection fit snuggly within the rest of the play’s rising authentic tensions, mainly because the stress and anxiety that Cyprus Avenue is coming from is a very real place of violence and brutal hate, but Bridget nails the complexity firmly in the twisted self-created structure of a psychotic break, giving a function to the form, and a purpose to the problem.
The play starts out with a long quiet pause that seems to stagnate the senses, hanging in the air with unnerving authority. He walks quietly along the streets of Belfast and into the room, looking confused and unsure of where his place is in this white world until the first line is thrown his way. The woman questions and accuses Rea’s character of doing nothing, although it becomes clear that his nothing is definitely something, and that something is most disturbing. The damages slowly start to stain underfoot as if seeping in from some wound below and above. The square space, first described as safe by Bridget starts to feel quite the opposite, especially once the face of Gerry Adams materializes for Eric to see. The tension in our heart rises, we become more and more aware that the imaginary Fenian baby’s time is limited and that what we are about to witness will be bashingly upsetting. The in-your-face squabbling of “she is/she’s not” is masterfully done, and perfectly executed in all manners of the meaning, diving into a breakdown of behavior where hate and bigotry gain hold and run wild. I hope I never see something like Cyprus Avenue act its way out in the real world, but on the stage, it is mesmerizing.
Please consider donating to the Royal Court Theatre by clicking here. It is considered the writers’ theatre. It is a leading force in world theatre for cultivating and supporting writers – undiscovered, emerging and established. Over 120,000 people visit the Royal Court in Sloane Square, London, each year and many thousands more see the work elsewhere through transfers to the West End and New York, UK and international tours, digital platforms, residencies across London, and site-specific work. Through all the work the theatre strives to inspire audiences and influence future writers with radical thinking and provocative discussion. The Royal Court is pleased to be able to offer an international audience the chance to see Cyprus Avenue.
Cyprus Avenue 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.
[Over the next few days, I’m posting reviews of shows I’m streaming. It’s a sad and confusing time, but one where we need to remember and believe in the power of community and everything that theatre stands for. We need to support those who are desperately out of work now until the lights get turned on once again (think about donating to theatre companies such as Royal Court, London or The Public Theater, New York, as well as out-of-work artists through either of these two sites: actorsfund.org and broadwaycares.org – Thanks Lin-Manuel for the info). Let’s all send a thank you to those who work so tirelessly to bring these productions to life day in and day out. It must be a shock to their systems to not do the thing they love to do. We need to support one another as many isolate themselves trying to be safe and not spread this virus. Our world has changed quite dramatically almost overnight, already losing one friend to the virus, but I for one have to believe that we will return somehow from all this, and sit once again as a community watching art and design stand proudly before us on stage. So here are some reviews. It’s weird to write them, but I want to remember, so I can remain hopeful. I hope this will have the same effect on you.]
For more, go to frontmezzjunkies.com