The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Spring 2016; Spring 2019
David Ireland's new play, a Royal Court and Abbey Theatre co-production, is a frequently moving, fascinating and engrossing drama.
In fact it is three frequently moving, fascinating and engrossing dramas in one, and its only problem – which may indeed be deliberate – is that the three strands are constantly jostling for our attention, leaving the audience off-balance and unsure how to react to what's going on.
In a bravura performance, Stephen Rea plays a Belfast Protestant whose fear and hatred of both the Republic of Ireland and the Catholics (which is to say the same thing) is so ingrained that even in these relatively peaceful times it is driving him mad.
He sees conspiracies at every turn, his determination to consider himself British is shaken by a world that sees him as Irish, and he is convinced that his infant granddaughter is Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in disguise.
The play, when it is in this mood, generates considerable sympathy for the suffering man as his more sane thoughts wrestle with his delusions.
But of course there is also something inescapably ridiculous about the character, and at frequent and unexpected intervals – and for one extended sequence in the middle of the play – the playwright steps back to an ironic distance and invites us to laugh unreservedly at the man we've just been pitying.
A particularly delightful anecdote resembles Marie Jones' monologue play A Night In November, as he wanders into an Irish pub in England and finds himself won over by the Catholics' friendliness and high spirits. But even this turns sadder as the experience compounds his identity confusion.
Meanwhile, we have been alerted from the start that some dark revelation is coming, and when the man's madness leads him to some truly terrible acts, both pity and comedy are driven aside by shock and horror.
In an odd way, a play that was less effective in generating each of these emotional responses might have been more successful in moving back and forth among them.
But Cypress Avenue keeps the audience off balance, as we repeatedly catch ourselves having the wrong response to a line or plot turn because the play has abruptly shifted from one mode and mood to another.
And that, of course, may be the whole point – imposing on us the emotional and moral confusion that is the Northern Irish experience.
Director Vicky Featherstone guides the play through these constant shifts in style and tone. Depending on how deliberate you think the play's constant bumping into itself is, she is either unable to paper over the stylistic cracks or deliberately highlighting them to contribute to the confusion.
Much the same is true of Stephen Rea's performance. Alone onstage for close to half the play and certainly dominating the rest, Rea is fully successful in creating the pitiable man, the ridiculous man and the frightening man, and more successful than you might think possible in making them all the same man.
There are solid but unquestionably secondary and supporting performances by Chris Corrigan as another equally confused Ulsterman, Julia Dearden as the central character's wife, Amy Molloy as his daughter and Wunmi Mosaku as a psychiatrist.