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March 15, 2019

Adelaide Festival – Satire a hilarious way of tackling minor troubles

Ulster American
by David Ireland
Traverse Theatre Company
Dunstan Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
March 13. Bookings: adelaidefestival.com
Tickets: $40- $79. Duration: 1 hour 25 mins (no interval)
Until March 17.

Ulster American, a new play by Belfast-born playwright David Ireland, is a raucous, funny, disconcerting satire on the cascading consequences of an ill-considered remark where, through social media, the private can become indelibly public. “I grew up during the Troubles,”writes Ireland,”I’m well aware of the dangers of tribalism and sanctimony. And sometimes the whole world feels like Northern Ireland in the 80s and 90s.”

This hit production from the 2018 Edinburgh Festival, which heads for Broadway later this year, is a bruising eisteddfod of escalating provocations and gotcha moments. The setting is a London apartment where Jay Conway, a middle-aged Oscar-winning Hollywood actor is meeting with up-and-coming English director, Leigh Carver and Ruth Davenport, an emerging playwright from Northern Ireland.

There is ripe comedy in the broad-brush portraits. Jay (Darrell D’Silva) is the mansplaining, manspreading egoist, full of actorly talk of ‘process’ and ‘journey’, name-checking the famous, parading his AA credentials, and unctuously faking humility as he bullies and badgers the younger, earnest, but overtly ambitious Leigh (Robert Jack).

Into this antler-rattling contest comes Ruth (Lucianne McEvoy) from Ulster with a play about Tommy, a Unionist who wreaks lethal havoc on the Catholic citizenry in the name of true destiny.

Things really begin to unravel when Jay, himself of Catholic heritage, discovers to his horror that he is starring in a play entirely devoted to the Protestant cause. When Ruth unhelpfully declares herself British, not Irish, Leigh enters the fray with lame attempts to make the play a fuzzy non-specific metaphor. Things worsen when Ruth tells him she voted ‘Leave’ in the Brexit referendum.

Becky Minto’s functional set, a modern apartment with couches in muted blues and greys, is warmly lit by Kate Bonney. Director Gareth Nicholls keeps the pace fast and farcical as the actors engage with each other and Ireland’s frantic, transgressive script. The expletives fly and the invective is both comic and disconcerting.

Like the plotlines, the performances are variously and hilariously monstrous. Darrell D’Silva’s Jay is an overbearing, dissembling buffoon, Lucianne McEvoy’s Ruth is both heroine and devious opportunist, and as Leigh, Robert Jack, marvellously dithers and manoeuvres in a desperate self-serving attempt to become a champion of new Irish writing.

In its impertinence Ulster American parodies problem plays like Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, or local works like The Slap, where a micro-event is amplified into social catastrophe. In turning to rough, outlandish comedy, the energetic Traverse Company do not belittle the importance of striving for ethical behaviour and just principles, but for 90 minutes they help us to lighten the load.

“Satire a hilarious way of tackling minor troubles” The Australian, March 15, 2019, p.15.

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