A first visit to the Royal Court for David Ireland’s challenging play, co-ptoduced with the Abbey Theatre and starring Stephen Rea, who returns to the role of Eric Miller.
Stephen Rea in Cyprus Avenue
We first see Eric as he shambles on to an empty stage, in a smart suit which is too big, and a sigh on his lips. His clinical psychologist, Bridget, “a young black woman”, coaxes more than monosyllabic answers out of him: “I’m not Irish, I’m British.”
Something has happened for Eric to be here, but we don’t know what. His daughter Julie has a new baby girl, but he’s not fond of children, and when he sees the face of IRA chief Gerry Adams (albeit without a beard) on baby Mary May, the seed is sown for an uncomfortable black comedy which switches to a bleak and violent conclusion.
Rea gives Eric a heart and soul – his hatred of ‘Fenians’, his Riverdance cavorting, his shocking expletive about his daughter when she was young, his drunken adventures in O’Neill’s (bringing to life the Camden Town Irish-Englishman he befriends) – so we like him.
A crumpled, desperate study of a man crumbling into oblivion, his performance gives Cyprus Avenue the feel of a one-man show, with the other characters merely cyphers, some – the would-be terrorist Slim – perhaps not even real.
The change of pace as Eric destroys all around him is quietly shocking, and the inevitable explosion of violence caught several audience members in the on-stage seats by surprise; it felt uncomfortable to watch audience members in distress, somehow.
Amy Molloy and Stephen Rea in Cyprus Avenue
This is a brave play which clicks by balancing Eric’s disintegration with the comedy Ireland, Rea and director Vicky Featherstone skilfully weave into the role.
Other cast members – Ronke Adekoluejo (Bridget), Chris Corrigan (Slim), Andrea Irvine (Bernie, the wife), Amy Molloy (Julie, the daughter) – give grounding and balance to the proceedings.
Cyprus Avenue continues at the Royal Court to 23rd March, with limited availability.
There has been decidedly mixed press about this new play by Enda Walsh, which has come to England following runs in Dublin and Cork. Hard to catagorise in any particular box, this can be classed as anything from black comedy to theatre of the absurd, to a frenetic physical showcase capped by a philosophical close, to ‘filling a room with words’.
A cast of three bring this play to the stage, under Walsh’s direction, and clearly every scene is closely choreographed, whether to the pulsing beats of ABC’s ‘The Look of Love’ or the smooth dialogue of the game of ‘Ballyturk’, where two men only called ‘1’ and ‘2’ create a day in the life of a town which only appears to exist in their head, from the local bully boy to the snipey lady shopkeeper (“I’ll not be out-bittered by a lemon”). Despite the Daily Mail asserting these two are brothers, there is no evidence to say whether they are brothers, strangers, father and son, or lovers. The conjecture is purely that of an audience who can make what they like of this set up.
Cillian Murphy plays ‘1’, and those who have seen him in both ‘Peaky Blinders’ on television, and in the films he has been part of (androgynously beautiful in ‘Breakfast at Pluto’, strangely vulnerable in ‘Disco Pigs’ – also directed by Walsh, tough in ‘Perrier’s Bounty’) know they show his range, which is built on here. He’s a livewire of activity, whether bounding up on to the curiously placed wooden furniture, working himself up into epileptic fits, or simply getting on with the minutae of life with a force which leaves him drenched in sweat for most of the production. He’s wickedly funny, too, and towards the end, quite heartbreaking, when he gets a chance to break from the repetitive existence he has shared with ‘2’ (dancing and drawing).
Mikel Murfi plays ‘2’. He’s not an actor I was familiar with, but on looking him up he was born as Michael Murphy, and rebranded himself early on, having made many stage appearances, a lot of collaboration with Walsh, and the occasional film (‘The Commitments’, ‘The Butcher Boy’). He is also a physical dynamo, and with quirky looks contained in an elastic face, he can switch from one emotion to another in a second, well showcased as he changes from one ‘Ballyturk’ character to another in a moment.
Into this bizarre existence, where the occasional disembodied voice comes through the walls, and ‘1’ and ‘2’ are – what – trapped? imprisoned? cocooned? – comes a louche visitor, known only as ‘3’, with cigarette in hand and, in a long existential monologue, a taste of what is available outdoors, from the disappointment of life to the things we all take for granted (sun, clouds, trees).
He is a challenge to the other two, and whether demanding tea and biscuits (which leads to an amusing biscuit jenga game, done in such a laid-back way it is almost imperceptible), singing an old classic, ‘Time After Time’ (with a microphone that appears from up high, for no reason) or quietly staring out ‘1’, he is a dynamic force coming into the partnership we have witnessed so far.
‘3’ is played by Stephen Rea, and his character is so quiet and nonchalant he exudes real danger and an unsettling vibe to the piece. I hadn’t seen him on stage before but have been long familiar with his film work, and he hasn’t lost any of that power he’s brought to the screen in the past.
The ending, to me, was one open to interpretation, of what is beyond the wall which had parted to allow ‘3’ to join the party. If ‘1’ and ‘2’ had always been able to leave, why hadn’t they? If they were always destined to be trapped, why was the opportunity presented now, and what would it lead to? Was the ‘death’ that ‘3’ spoke of really a reintroduction back into the real life, and the inevitable mortality that involved? And just who was ‘3’, anyway?
As we left the National another audience member had clearly endured enough during the 90 minutes, dismissing this play as “a load of bloody rubbish!”. The audience reaction generally was mixed, I thought, some enthuastically applauding, others muted and quiet. I found ‘Ballyturk’ interesting, infuriating, funny, charming, and touching, I might be biased as a fan of both Rea and Murphy, but they don’t disappoint, and this play is a challenge for sure, but a worthwhile one.