sun 20/09/2020

Cyprus Avenue, Royal Court Theatre online review - a mind in mesmerising meltdown | reviews, news & interviews

Cyprus Avenue, Royal Court Theatre online review - a mind in mesmerising meltdown

Cyprus Avenue, Royal Court Theatre online review - a mind in mesmerising meltdown

Stephen Rea rivets once again in David Ireland play

None-too-quiescent: Stephen Rea in 'Cyprus Avenue'Ros Kavanagh

One of the most blistering stage performances in recent memory gets a renewed lease on life with the streaming of the 2019 screen version, aired last autumn on BBC Four, of Cyprus Avenue, the David Ireland play in which Stephen Rea unravels to memorable and merciless effect.

One of the most blistering stage performances in recent memory gets a renewed lease on life with the streaming of the 2019 screen version, aired last autumn on BBC Four, of Cyprus Avenue, the David Ireland play in which Stephen Rea unravels to memorable and merciless effect.

A co-production between Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and the Royal Court (and seen later at New York’s Public Theatre), Ireland’s depiction of a mind in meltdown was a galvanic experience within the intimate confines of the Court’s tiny Theatre Upstairs almost exactly four years ago. The Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone here couples a recording of an actual live performance – seeing an audience from our current lockdown perspective seems to hark back to some vanished age – with location shooting in Belfast, where the play is set, so as to ramp up the specificity of the story.

Chris Corrigan in 'Cyprus Avenue'In fact, literalism exists at some remove from a 95-minute narrative (no interval) that unfolds like a grotesque fantasia. Playing an Ulster Unionist called Eric Miller who is convinced that his five-week granddaughter is in fact Sinn Féin grandee Gerry Adams, Rea chronicles a descent into madness that works both as a parable of the warped psychology of terrorism and the kind of cataclysmic domestic tragedy we associate with the Greeks.

The play draws gallows humour from Eric’s growing certainty that this new addition to his family may not be quite the cherub insisted upon by his increasingly desperate wife (Andrea Irvine) and daughter (Amy Molloy). Before long, he is drawing a beard and placing glasses on the infant, the tale recounted in flashback to a black female therapist (Ronke Adekoluejo): a dramatic device that seems oddly clunky. (Interestingly, a shocking racial aspersion delivered early in the text doesn’t feature in this performance of it.)

While his family try to get him to see sense, Eric recedes further into his bizarre mental wanderings, going so far as to inquire whether a loyalist paramilitary called Slim (Chris Corrigan, pictured above, who could have stepped directly out of many a Martin McDonagh play) might commit infanticide. The discourse between the men moves between an excavation of the sectarian chasms that have led Eric to this hateful state and a hilarious précis of the celluloid output of Ron Howard.

Throughout, one watches as Rea’s hangdog Eric, the actor’s quiescent demeanour suppressing real savagery, attempts an awful self-justification that results in the telltale staining of Lizzie Clachan’s bare-bones set. I mean no discredit to the other fine performers to wonder whether the material might be even more powerful as a solo act of self-reckoning, with Rea (seen recently on TV's Flesh and Blood) psychically shape-shifting throughout. For now, how grand it is to have a lasting record of a performance that, truly, one won’t soon forget.

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