CYPRUS AVENUE (online review)
Royal Court Theatre
Written by: David Ireland
Directed by: Vicky Featherstone
Five minutes ago, I finished watching Cyprus Avenue and I am bursting to write something, anything, down. Even online, I am completely shaken by the terrifying stillness of this performance. Cyprus Avenue is a play written by David Ireland (not a song by Van Morrison for those of you wondering) about an Ulster Protestant; Eric Miller, born and bred in East Belfast. His past, present and future are all distorted by the Troubles. He stumbles through life unable to come to terms with the normality that modern day Northern Ireland has to offer. We first meet him in a psychoanalyst’s office, he is clearly not there by will. As the two, sitting as far away as possible on the stage, distantly begin to unscramble the mess of Miller’s recent past, the whole horrifying, astonishing story plays out before us.
I walked blind into this one. I was looking for some online theatre and before I knew it, I was captivated. It was an odd experience for me because I usually like to be very prepared and forewarned before going to the theatre, especially with plays like Cyprus Avenue. I was terrifyingly riveted by what I witnessed, almost to the point that I had to forbid myself from slamming my laptop closed and running for the hills (and by that, I mean the lockdown version of running away: speed walking into a communal space). I had no idea where it was going and yet I was overwhelmed by the unbearable inevitability of it all.
The issues of cultural identity, prejudice and resentment against Fenians (a derogatory name for Catholics) bubbling around in Miller’s subconscious come surging up when his own daughter has a child. As he says: “Without prejudice we are nothing”. It is slowly revealed through the mesmerising dialogue that Miller believes, really believes, that his daughter is a slut and because of this his new granddaughter is Gerry Adams (president of the Sinn Féin Irish republican political party). Stephen Rea gives a fantastic portrayal of Miller’s spiral into madness, so wound up with conviction that nothing and no one can untangle him from the knots of his own making.
The last time this play was on stage was at the Royal Court in 2019, when they made this film. The one problem I did have with the show was to do with the filming itself. The footage of the play was intertwined with solemn shots of the characters on park benches, walking down streets and eating sandwiches. This was clearly an attempt to take the play beyond the confines of theatre walls and to give the at home audience something more. I found this pointless and quite frustrating. Was a it a play? Or was it a film? The effort was understandable, but a little more commitment to these moments was needed in order to justify their featuring.
To mention any more of the plot would give the game away, but hopefully you will be a little more prepared for the terrifying violence blotching the soft furnishings than I was. You will simply have to watch it for yourself. Even with no knowledge of the play’s context, Ireland’s writing will creep up on you as you helplessly watch events spiral out of control. Overall this was not an easy lockdown watch, but it was a wonderful piece of drama that almost reminded me of actually being in a theatre.