Digital theatre review: Cyprus Avenue (Royal Court)
Ivan Radford | On 28, May 2020
How do you prove who you are, to yourself and to others? The language you use is a powerful determiner of where you fit in society, but words can only go so far – what you do defines you even more. But what if you’re not even sure who you are yourself? That crisis of identity is at the heart of Cyprus Avenue, David Ireland’s shocking, powerful and disturbingly funny play.
Identity has never been more volatile or weaponised than recent years, with Brexit dividing people into factions and stirring up sectarian prejudice. Cyprus Avenue takes us into the thick of where such divisions and resulting atrocities have been bubbling for decades: Belfast, where Eric (Stephen Rea), a loyalist, begins to question everything about his life.
His breakdown is triggered by his granddaughter, whom he is convinced looks like Gerry Adams. His wife (Andrea Irvine) insists he’s mistaken, but seeing his behaviour through the framework of sessions with his therapist (Ronke Adekoluejo) makes it clear that things aren’t going to end well. Before he can even begin to recount events, he dives into a racist rant against her, and that hatred emerges as a key tool for him to orient himself.
Because that’s how humans can so easily define their place in the world – by highlighting how different it is to anyone else’s. The need for an “other” to position oneself against has long shaped civilisation, and Ireland’s script deftly taps into that desperate urge to cling to ideologies and prejudices regardless of their validity or relevance.
Stephen Rea is mesmerising as Eric, a man who becomes convinced that his cultural heritage is under attack by this baby Gerry Adams and panics accordingly. Rea’s crumpled facial expressions sag with fear and resentment before erupting in anger, and his ability to move from melancholy to mania is as unsettling as it is tragic; he sucks the whole play in around him, turning it into a 90-minute spiral that doesn’t have an interval and becomes almost a one-man show. He raves about everything from Gary Lineker and Catholics to George Clooney and marker pens, with Ireland’s searing script managing to find the hilarious and the horrific qualities of every escalating utterance.
Director Vicky Featherstone mixes the recorded stage production with footage from the outside world, but there’s no sense of escape or relief, as the play rockets towards an inevitable, upsetting climax – all the while tapping into loyalist conviction, individual paranoia and cultural terrorism with a dark, skewering wit.
Cyprus Avenue is available on the Royal Court Theatre YouTube channel until 31st May 2020