Drama review: David Ireland's Cyprus Avenue takes us to a very dark place

Stephen Rea plays loyalist Lear Eric with trademark rumpled charm in Cyprus Avenue
Stephen Rea plays loyalist Lear Eric with trademark rumpled charm in Cyprus Avenue

DAVID Ireland’s new play Cyprus Avenue provided a packed audience at the MAC’s main stage with the most electric, unnerving, illuminating nights of theatre any of us can have seen for years.

It’s important too, all about the madness of the sectarian divide.

Eric, played by Stephen Rea with conviction and trademark rumpled charm as a loyalist Lear, has a problem. But he doesn’t know it.

This play, which echoes 1960s playwrights such as Edward Bond and belongs somewhere in the file marked Theatre of Cruelty, is also absurd (with a capital A) and darkly funny.

We first meet our anti-hero in a session with his psychologist Bridget, nicely played by Ronke Adelkoluejo with a soupcon of patronising smugness.

Initially his delusion, that his baby grand-daughter, gurgling Mary-Mae, is actually the incarnation of Gerry Adams, seems funny. He paints a beard on the five-week-old innocent with a black marker, places tiny spectacles on her from the Build-a-Bear shop. These bathetic details are very well done and we laughed along.

Gradually, though, we explore the further reaches of Eric’s lunacy. What is really clever is Mr Ireland’s ability to lead us by the hand via his use of language and deployment of violence, pathos and humour into a very dark place.

Here is a spoiler alert: Eric manages to justify the murder of his family – sympathetic daughter Julie (Amy Molloy), long-suffering wife Bernie (Andrea Irvine), as part of his fight against f***ing Fenians.

Not that they’re anything but good Protestants, you understand, but Eric’s on the misguided road to guns and strangling.

His encounter with articulate, almost moral paramilitary Slim (excellent Chris Corrigan) is convincing and brutal. Yet it’s not the guy in the balaclava who is the problem, but our late middle-aged, suited sociopath.

Of course, this is all a big, beautiful metaphor. It conveys a truth about the far from beautiful reality of the Troubles which is that a weird logical, self-justifying madness fuelled the murders, on both sides.

As Eric puts it towards the end of a tough drama, in which we witness the sort of things everybody in Northern Ireland witnessed 30 years ago “we’re nothing without prejudice”.

:: Until Saturday May 26. See themaclive.com for details and booking