Venue: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
It’s pretty self evident that publicity flyers should be informative and eye-catching but should never contain spoilers. So, when the central image of David Ireland’s latest verbal and dramatic onslaught is of an Oscar statuette transformed into a blood spattered hammer, the surprise element of the play’s violent dénouement is somewhat diminished.
Still, there is rarely anything predictable about the fluency of Ireland’s writing and the subversively tangential vision he invariably brings to an apparently normal situation. As the years go by and his credits mount, what passes for reality in his work moves further and further into the realms of surreality. ‘Normal’ becomes a relative term.
Normality in this particular instance begins with a conversation between a distinguished theatre director and his Oscar-winning lead actor, as opening night of a new play by an exciting young Irish writer approaches. But the protagonists’ body language and verbal interaction soon indicate that the content of their intense, heightened exchange is doomed to disintegrate very rapidly and with potentially devastating effect.
As they discuss and unpick the play’s text and subtext, Robert Jack’s nervy, anxious to please Leigh seems to wilt under the imbroglio of Jay’s crazed, terrifyingly impassioned artistic angst. Revelling in his obsessive sense of Irish-American identity, Darrell D’Silva’s Jay is a cantankerous and demanding bully, high as a kite on the prospect of his involvement in what he views as a dangerous, controversial Irish play. He can’t contain his excitement at meeting the writer Ruth Davenport (Lucianne McEvoy) and of sharing with her their respective versions of what it means to be Irish.
Ruth arrives, fresh and articulate, thrilled to be coming face to face with the distinguished actor who will be her leading man. Initially, the admiration is mutual. It seems as though all Leigh has to do is ease them into a creative partnership which can translate into stage heaven.
But Jay and Ruth come from very different worlds, where different rules of engagement apply. As the audience has already realised, Jay’s moral compass is all over the place. The dramatic irony of that knowledge is firmly in place before his crazed, misogynistic ramblings descend upon Ruth like the hammers of hell.
Worse, he keeps banging on about the two of them being Irish and, therefore, kindred spirits. In his innocence and ignorance, he cannot grasp how a woman who comes from the island of Ireland insists on being British and that her play is very far removed from the hymn to republicanism he perceives it to be. The tangle of identities underpinning so many layers of Irish society, north, south and across the Atlantic, is expertly exposed and parodied in Ireland’s fast and furious script.
Friendly banter soon turns to disagreement, to heated argument, to sexist threats, to sectarian anger, to unleashed fury … and to something much, much worse. Meanwhile, Leigh’s role as mediator grows ever more tortured, as he tries unsuccesssfully to steer a path through a maze-like battle of cultural identity and artistic vision.
Ireland relentlessly turns the screw on the audience’s emotions, cranking up the imploding verbal violence between the three supremely well-played characters until it reaches the point of near hysteria. His fizzing language and uncompromising plot twists have had us guffawing, wincing, recoiling, gasping for breath. As the lights go down on the blood-soaked war zone, there’s a deafening silence around the auditorium, a palpable sense of not knowing whether to laugh or cry or run for cover.