If you haven’t heard of David Ireland, you really should have. In recent years, the Belfast-based playwright has become one of British theatre's most distinctive and controversial voices with a series of scabrous, scandalising plays, including ‘Everything Between Us’, ‘The End of Hope’ and last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe conversation-starter ‘Ulster American’ (surely arriving in London soon). They’re all as dark and funny as anything by Martin McDonagh, but they have an injection of absurdity that’s entirely Ireland’s, too.
A great big syringeful of it, when it comes to ‘Cyprus Avenue’, his 2016 Royal Court hit, directed by Vicky Featherstone and returning now to Sloane Square. Transferring to the larger Downstairs theatre, its shock value is perhaps slightly diluted but still pretty much the same. Over 100 minutes, the play follows Eric Miller, an outrageously bigoted, resolutely Unionist man, as he struggles with the outlandish conviction that his newborn granddaughter is in fact Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams.
It goes to some pretty weird places, from an interview in a psychologist’s office, to a hallucinatory encounter with a UVF paramilitary, to a chilling climactic scene in Eric’s living room that has echoes of Edward Bond’s ‘Saved’, but it takes you with it all the way. This is largely thanks to an extraordinary central performance from Stephen Rea – all shambling shoulders, flapping hands and wriggling fingers, ornately articulate racist slurs spilling freely from his mouth.
Ireland definitely indulges himself at times – some of the savage speeches seem more overwritten than they did in 2016 – but if ‘Cyprus Avenue’ has lost some of its tautness in the intervening years, it has gained enormous resonance. The whole thing is a silly, almost satirical, send-up of where prejudice and nationalism and insecurity about identity can eventually lead, and that shit doesn’t stop at the Giant’s Causeway.
‘Cyprus Avenue’ is about a warped and twisted Unionist in Belfast but the point could just as easily be made in Brexit Britain. It’s a bruising play, touched by brilliance.