It’s weird being Northern Irish in America. Just ask David Ireland, whose new play, Ulster American, forms one of the Traverse Theatre’s flagship in-house productions for the new writing theatre’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe season. Belfast-born Ireland’s hit play, Cyprus Avenue, originally see at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the Royal Court, London, has just opened in New York, and the Glasgow-trained actor turned playwright is currently the talk of the town.
Whether any of Ireland’s experiences in the big apple being feted for Cyprus Avenue’s brutally funny yarn about an ageing loyalist fanatic who believes his five-week-old grand-daughter to be Gerry Adams have trickled down into his new play isn’t clear. Ireland’s fleeting meeting with Keanu Reeves in 2009 when the Matrix star turned up at a production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard Ireland was appearing in definitely hasn’t, he says. As Ulster American’s trio of an ambitious London theatre director, an Oscar-winning Hollywood star wanting to connect with his Irish roots and an ambitious Northern Irish playwright meet up to discuss the play they’re all about to do, it’s hard not to wonder where the play came from.
“It’s a weird one,” says Ireland, tucked into a booth in the Traverse bar alongside the show’s director Gareth Nicholls. “I’m not really sure where it came from, and it still baffles me why I wrote it. I guess the initial thought was the difficulty of writing about Northern Ireland when you come from Northern Ireland, and the difficulty of writing about unionism and loyalism in Northern Ireland, which is so complicated trying to write about that in an accessible way. And it’s about a desire to escape from Northern Ireland, both in my writing, but also in my life.”
Ireland laughs when he says this, but he means it, even as he recognises the contradictions of his statement.
“The character of the playwright in Ulster American feels very attached to Northern Ireland,” he says. “She feels very attached to Belfast and her loyalist roots, but also wants huge success and Hollywood fame. And then when she’s confronted with Hollywood, it’s not what she thought it was at all.”
Ireland laughs again when he’s asked if the latter is an experience he can relate to, and says not.
“But since I wrote the play I’ve had a lot more experiences, which have fed into the rewrites,” he says. “It’s a weird thing, because I’ve always had a real love of America and American culture, but when you come from a very loyalist background, Irish America is almost exclusively Catholic. You never hear about an Irish American saying they’re a protestant.
“Historically, America’s been very supportive of the IRA and Irish nationalism, and that’s at the roots of Irish America. So when you love America and Americans, then when you go there and are perceived to be Irish, and are celebrated as an Irish writer, it can be kind of confusing. Nobody ever thinks of you as a British writer, but I think of myself as British, and yet a lot of my work gets produced because I’m Irish, and I’m writing about what a lot of people perceive to be Ireland.”
As with many of Ireland’s plays, Ulster American is violent. Cyprus Avenue was dubbed as the most ‘shocking, subversive and violent play in London’ by one critic. Given the play’s set-up, it also accidentally chimes with the rise of the #MeToo movement.
“It’s a satire in many ways,” says Nicholls, “so I’ve had bags of fun looking at that world through a particular lens, but it also uses that three-way relationship to look at power, and the abuse of power within that relationship. That’s very particular, and very much in the news at the moment, but also speaks for wider industries and cultures. You can just deal with it on a human level of three people in a room in a very particular situation, but the way David tackles that is through really dark humour that makes you laugh at difficult things.”
Again, any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental, and Ireland was some way into Ulster American before the world he was writing about was put under very necessary scrutiny.
“None of that stuff was around when I was writing the play,” Ireland says. “I don’t want to use the word fortunate, because that would be quite wrong, but it felt strange when that story broke after I’d written my first draft of the play, and then all the other stories started to come out.”
What effect did this have on the play itself?
“It made me slightly more cautious about things,” says Ireland. The play’s not about Harvey Weinstein. It’s not about Kevin Spacey. But if people start thinking it’s about those people, then that changes their perception of the play. It could look like we’re being flippant about those issues, which the play certainly isn’t, and I never would be. So there was all that kind of worry, and it was just about going through it and making sure that if there was ever a moment where it seemed like the play is being flippant to address that.”
Ireland is writing full time these days, and has given up acting completely.
“I’ve never really been happy and satisfied being an actor,” he says. “Then as soon as I started writing I felt much happier.”
Ireland wrote a part for himself in Cyprus Avenue, but during auditions “there were so many actors doing it better than I could imagine myself doing it.”
He also wrote a lead part for himself in a TV pilot. Again, “the actor who’s doing it is much better than me.”
The final straw came when Ireland auditioned for Rillington Place, starring Tim Roth as serial killer Reginald Christie.
“I went for an audition for one line as a barman, and the casting directors had just been to see Cyprus Avenue. They were like, why are you coming in to audition for one line in this when your play’s on at the Royal Court, and I was like, I don’t know, because I’m an actor, I go to auditions, that’s what I do. Then they gave me the part and I got cut. … That was a sign.”
Despite Ulster American’s serious subject matter, Nicholls describes the play as “blisteringly funny, but at the end I think you’re spat out in a bit of a whirlwind. It asks you tons of questions about yourself that creep up on you. It deals with heavy subject matter, but in the way satire does, not by preaching, but by asking a bunch of ambiguous questions through humour.”
This suits Ireland fine.
“Sometimes when people come and see my plays they say they’ve left with more questions than answers,” he says, “and they say that like it’s a bad thing, but I don’t feel it’s my job to provide answers, and if people leave with questions, that’s a good thing.”
Ulster American, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, previews July 28 and August 2, then August 3-26, various times.
The Herald, July 18th 2018