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BWW Review: Stephen Rea is Chillingly Understated in David Ireland's CYPRUS AVENUE


On the surface, the plot of CYPRUS AVENUE is just a little too weird to take seriously, and that's one of the strengths of David Ireland's creepy drama, as director Vicky Featherstone, Artistic Director of London's Royal Court, seamlessly transitions the piece from cerebral exploration to dark comedy to a sickeningly violent ending.

Cyprus Avenue
Stephen Rea (Photo: Ros Kavanagh)

Her swift and thoroughly absorbing production, created in partnership with Dublin's Abbey Theatre, now moves to The Public, with Stephen Rea repeating his terrifically understated performance as one of those seemingly harmless nuts with crazy opinions about the world who you might not think has the potential to create headline with a shockingly brutal act.

Rea plays Eric, a gentle-looking and soft-spoken man who was raised and still lives on the play's title street in East Belfast. We're introduced to him at the start of his first therapy session at a mental treatment facility.

Ronke Adékoluejo is professionally even tempered as his therapist, Bridget, even after Eric refers to her by using the n-word.

When she suggests that his admitted naiveite about how to respectfully address a black person may be a result of his being Irish and thus not widely exposed to multiculturalism, Eric abruptly interrupts to correct her.

"The last thing I am is Irish," he explains with quiet, but defiant pride. "My grandfather was killed in the Battle of the Somme. My father died at Dunkirk. And I too would die for my right to be British... I fly the flag of the Union from the rooftop of our house. I worked for Her Majesty's Government to combat the relentless campaign of genocide conducted by the IRA against the Protestant people of Ulster over the course of three decades... I am exclusively and non-negotiably British. I am not nor never have been nor never will be Irish."

And it's this patriotism mixed with hatred that, in Eric's mad brain, drives him to several horrific acts motivated by his ridiculously absurd conviction that his infant granddaughter, Mary-May has an undeniable resemblance to Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and that his daughter Julie (Amy Molloy) must have committed a serious act of betrayal by having a child with the powerful Irish-Catholic.

Cyprus Avenue
Stephen Rea and Ronke Adékoluejo
(Photo: Ros Kavanagh)

Eric goes to so far as to draw a black beard and place toy glasses on the baby, to point out the resemblance to Julie and confront her with the obvious truth; that she is helping the "Fenians," as he calls them, infiltrate his home.

"For four hundred years they raped our women and burnt us out of our property," he calmly explains to Bridget as justification his emotions.

After his wife Bernie (Andrea Irvine), fed up with his nonsense, orders him out of the house, Eric meets a young, not-too-bright, self-styled terrorist named Slim (bumbling Chris Corrigan). This meeting of distorted minds is where the play neatly glides into dark comedy. Slim isn't so dumb as to believe right away that Mary-May really is double for Adams and that she's a Catholic spy sent to invade a good Protestant home, but as a loyalist he can't take any chances. He makes a deal with Eric that if the resemblance really is that striking, he'll assassinate her with his handgun. If it isn't, he'll kill Eric instead.

Designer Lizzie Clachan covers the stage of The Public's LuEsther Hall with a white carpet, and though the events in the play's climactic scene would be quite bloody in real life, Featherstone uses the substance judiciously and symbolically, never allowing sensationalism to overshadow the horror of what is going on in Eric's mind.

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