Review: ULSTER AMERICAN, Riverside Studios

David Ireland's blackest of comedies is ugly, savage, raw and uncomfortable.

By: Dec. 14, 2023
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Review: ULSTER AMERICAN, Riverside Studios
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Ulster AmericanTheatregoers do not generally go to David Ireland plays expecting to be cossetted with fluff and whimsy. Sometimes these provocative and violent themes work. Sometimes, as with the truly offensive I Promise You Sex and Violence, it goes too far. Ulster American, last seen in Edinburgh in 2018, opens with a debate about using the n-word. So far, so Ireland. We then touch on sex, consent, religion, Unionism, the IRA and Brexit, all crafted with bitingly sharp humour. It’s a lot to take in.

A director, an actor and a playwright meet before rehearsals start on an explosive new play set in Ulster. As misunderstandings and revelations emerge, the evening descends into the explosive dialogue and the sustained verbal and physical violence for which Ireland is known.

Ulster American

There is a fine line between the blackest comedy and poor taste; your reaction to this play will depend a huge amount on how you respond to long running jokes about rape, as this is a constant thread. Is it ok to rape someone, you know, if you really had to? In pushing these provocative buttons, Ireland muses on what is truth, white male privilege and the boundaries in what can be said by theatremakers.

Ulster American is filled with the blackest humour; Ireland is a writer who often makes you laugh, then immediately consider whether you should have done so. The production feels so compelling in large part to the incredible performances from the three actors involved.

Woody Harrelson is absolutely captivating as the puffed-up, headstanding ego that is American actor Jay. Posturing, stupid (he believes the Bechdel test is the creation of a man for one thing) and then appalled to discover that the best script he’s read for years endorses pro-Unionist violence.

Harrelson shows off this grand pomposity through a very physical performance, dominating the stage like a true A-lister, but this is also a man who thinks it’s acceptable to put his banana skins in someone else’s vase. Harrelson last appeared in the West End revival of The Night of the Iguana in back in 2005, but behaves as though it is his second home. He also pulls off his billowing printed trousers and 'crazy' socks with aplomb.

Ulster American

Andy Serkis is superb as director Leigh, eager to display his liberal values, but often deeply misogynistic, ignorant and happy to discard his morals in an increasingly desperate bid to save the play. Serkis exudes anxiety and stress from every pore as he continuously pours himself vats of red wine.

Derry Girls’ Louisa Harland is wonderfully convincing as Ruth; determined, focused and single-minded in all her views, however perplexing they might be to the others. Harland brings depth and real sincerity to a role that feels the most fleshed out amongst the three.

Ireland was born in Belfast; a famously committed unionist and the play’s observations about the laziness and ignorance of UK’s perception of Northern Ireland land squarely and with great impact, particularly to a liberal London audience. The fight to express personal truth is more relevant than ever, however, perhaps back in 2018, the play's references to Brexit and the #MeToo experience had more resonance than today.

Ulster American

Each fights for their own version of the truth; Jay boasts of the Irish blood in his veins, but has never set foot on either side of the border, nor does he even know what or where Ulster is. Leigh reads Brexit tensions in the script where there seems to be none and Ruth refuses, quite reasonably, to make any changes to her script due to the men's prejudices. 

Director Jeremy Herrin clearly understands Ireland's themes of cultural identity, toxic masculinity and power struggles. He frequently moves the actors to and fro, reflecting the undulating language of the script. Herrin, along with fight director Renny Krupinksi, bring a shockingly violent, if overly long, final scene to life.

Mention must go to Max Jones’ beautifully domestic scene of Leigh's typical middle class living room. There are many thoughtful touches such as books on Degas, tasteful lamps and a stylish Eames recliner and footstool. A thick book on Irish history lies on the floor, clearly never opened.

I suspect that many people who have booked tickets solely on the back of Harrelson's appearance will be throughly shocked by what they encounter. It's not safe or comfortable, but that was never the intention.

Ulster American is at Riverside Studios until 27 January 2024

Photo Credits: Johan Perrson


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