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Cyprus Avenue

Posted 7/11/18

Othello/First Love reviewed by Fern Siegel for

Identity is a loaded word, especially as politics shift. In Northern Ireland, that seismic turn, explored in David Ireland’s subversive-absurdist play Cyprus Avenue, becomes a fiery cauldron of emotions that fuels the unthinkable.

There is fierceness to paranoia and prejudice that Eric (Stephen Rea) captures with the thrust of a finger and a jagged walk. He is like a caged tiger waiting to spring. An Ulster loyalist, with a hatred of Irish Catholics and Republicans, he fears a profound loss: his Protestant Unionist British identity.

In short, he believes the Fenians have invaded his East Belfast, Northern Ireland home — in the form of his 5-week-old granddaughter. To him, she resembles Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political party dedicated to the reunification of Ireland.

Adams is his sworn enemy and in Cyprus Avenue, a co-production between the Abbey and the Royal Court now at the Public Theater, misplaced anger turns lethal at warp speed.

Living in an upscale neighborhood in Belfast, Eric finds himself isolated from his family. His wife and daughter adore the newborn, whose father is never mentioned. (Eric lost his own father in wartime.) That omission, in part, promotes a larger worry: His refuge has been infiltrated by a foreign entity.

The women love the baby; he sees only a threat to the life he has built. Yes, Eric is mentally unbalanced, but Ireland’s larger point is that historic experience and a traumatic childhood can twist destiny.

In one of the play’s strongest scenes, Eric remembers a night in a pub in London, when he was mistaken for one of them, the Irish. That experience acts as a trip wire, activating a greater malevolence.

“Without prejudice we’re nothing! If we don’t discriminate we don’t survive!” he tells Slim (Chris Corrigan), an Ulster Volunteer Force member. Is Slim real? Is he an hallucination? What unites them is a hatred of Irish Catholics. Anger unleashed can veer out of control. Its toxic masculinity is driven by identity politics and complicated by historic atrocities.

Eric’s delusions are told via sessions with his British therapist (Ronke Adekojuejo) and endured by his wife (Andrea Irvine) and daughter (Amy Molloy).

The women function largely as backdrops to Eric’s paranoia. They are the voices of sanity in an increasingly frayed landscape, littered with screeds that have, at times, a dark comedic edge. The Irish Troubles are complicated — and often-unfamiliar terrain to American audiences. Thanks to Rea’s unrelenting performance, long-held hatreds are portrayed in layered terms.

It’s not that we condone his actions or epithets; it’s that Ireland skillfully mines the influence of culture, family, tradition and dogma. What Eric’s therapist calls the “diabolic mess.”

How far would we go if threatened? Or as the dangerously tormented Eric mourns, his nation is “sleepwalking into a united Ireland.” A reality he cannot endure. Conspiracy theories are ideal fodder for dramas, especially when they delve into larger issues of self-definition and the madness that springs from fear.

Lizzie Clachan’s exposed white set is the clinical canvas on which Eric’s story is told. Director Vicky Featherstone neatly ratchets up the tension; Cyprus Avenue is a taut work that charts the hideous arc of sectarian angst. It’s also elongated; shaving 10 minutes would eliminate some of the repetition and strain.

Still, this is Rea’s show, and he delivers a riveting performance. Aided by strong supporting players and a noteworthy Corrigan, who convincingly captures the insanity of the blinded partisan, Cyprus Avenue is disturbingly memorable.

“I will not consent to my own destruction,” Eric insists. His answer will haunt audiences and ideologues alike.  —Fern Siegel