4th of December 2023 - 27th January 2024
DEC 16, 2023
It is impossible to ignore the power of the performances of Woody Harrellson, Andy Serkis, and Louisa Harland, but these performances can’t hide some challenges I found within playwright David Ireland’s text. At times, it felt like there could have been a tighter grip on the narrative, which would have helped lift the play to a much greater height.
Leigh, Serkis, a theatre director, is at home talking with Jay, Harrellson, a Hollywood actor who has agreed to take the lead in Irish playwright Ruth Davenport’s, Harland, latest play. On her arrival late at the house, Ruth’s energy seems to be a reflection of an experience she had before her flight from Northern Ireland. Tensions arise as conflict and confusion over Davenport’s text are brought to light, which affects not only the play but also the relationship between the three creatives.
When writing satire, one must always be willing to push the boundaries as far as possible. Insulting, offending, or even grossing out your audience is vital, as it allows them to really connect with the work. In the past, playwrights would relish the idea of audiences being so disgusted by what they were seeing and hearing that seeing some storm out of the theatre would be seen as a triumph. Award-winning Northern Irish playwright David Ireland’s Ulster American is a blend of social, cultural, and political satire that only ever manages to get halfway between being insulting or offensive. At times, by showing some more bravery in pushing his text further, he could have taken his play in a much more realistic direction.
In the opening conversation between Jay and Leigh, in which Jay asks Leigh if he uses the N-word, Jay should have turned to Leigh and said, “Can I ask you something? Do you ever say "nigger"? The very use of those words creates discomfort, but Jay is the star; he’s a brash American, and Leigh is desperate to work with him. By having Jay use the actual word, it would have taken off some of the “Hollywood sheen” that he has.
It’s the N-word that becomes a problem as we later discover that Jay is friends with Tarantino. I will not assume that Tarantino walks around saying "nigger,” but I would bet that, in private, he seems like the type of person who would use the word. And that’s where Ireland seems to be treading a very fine line. Who self-censors when having a conversation in their own home with a colleague? He’s made Jay and Tarantino friends, and now, while in a house in London, he’s with a theatre director, and he’s proposing a hypothetical question. Could this be from a conversation he’s had with Tarantino? Is Jay, rather than being controversial, truly trying to use his time in London as a way to get a new prospective on that word from someone way outside his circle? Tarantino’s use of the N-word in his films is well documented and really divisive, yet he’s shown zero interest in joining the debate. Ireland should have been braver and should have had Jay say nigger rather than unfold a whole conversation between Leigh and Jay using N-word.
There is an unfair delicateness to the way Leigh and Jay skirt around not saying the N-word, which isn’t present when the discussion between actor and director moves to rape. I would contend that there were far more people in the audience who would have been triggered by the rape conversation than would have been triggered by the use of nigger. But in the latter discussion, Ireland doesn’t hold back; there is a brutality to this conversation between Leigh and Jay that is disturbing.
In a play that explores misogyny by presenting two men who are intent on illustrating their feminist credentials and out-woking each other, Ireland touches on some elements of female relationships that could have been explored a little more. The mother-daughter relationship is only touched on once, during the moment Ruth enters the house. And it is in this moment that we get to see a side of Ruth that is selfish, uncaring, unkind, and willing to do what it takes to get to where she wants to go. Harland had a difficult job here in that the audience had already built a connection with Leigh and Jay, making it hard for a new character to come in. Harland’s energy lifted the scene, and it’s in this first scene that we get the touch of a mother-daughter dynamic. Other than this moment, we don’t really get to connect with Ruth and her mother’s story again until much later, when her mother is brought back into the conversation. When we do, it seems, and it pains me to say, somewhat forced.
"It felt like the three of them had unwittingly signed secret Faustian agreements and that, in reality, neither of them could leave the project, no matter how disturbing it got."
As Ulster American moves towards its conclusion, the text becomes less smooth, though throughout it maintains its deliciously dark humour. One never understands why Ruth doesn’t just leave. Though she is threatened with the old line “you’ve signed a contract,” she still could have left. It felt like the three of them had unwittingly signed secret Faustian agreements and that, in reality, neither of them could leave the project, no matter how disturbing it got. They each desperately need this production to work. At the beginning, Leigh’s overeagerness to entertain Jay is presented in such a way that it almost feels lacklustre; this is a credit to Serkis. As the evening progresses, you see a different side of Leigh, and you begin to wonder what his real motivation is. And why is a Hollywood, Oscar-winning actor in this terrace house in London, late at night, eager to do a play on the West End? As for the playwright Ruth, she showed a brutal willingness to come over from Northern Ireland no matter what. And in the end, is Ruth upset that neither her director nor her lead actor really understand or get her play, or is she more conflicted over how this conversation made her feel about her own identity?
But the biggest disappointment has to be the violence at the end. The choreography for the fighting wasn’t smooth, and felt over complicated. At one point, Ruth tries to leave, but she’s chased by Leigh and Jay, who grab her and pull her back into the house. Due to Max Jones brilliant set, the hallway is covered by the living room wall, and it is in the hallway that the violence should have taken place. This could have offered much more of a powerful impact. But instead, the satire turns into a farce as Leigh, Jay, and Ruth start battling one another.
Ulster American is smart, funny, dark, and a richly observed satire. Ireland masterfully creates characters that are fully formed and have voices that genuinely present a type of lived experience that is rare to see on the stage. Though Ireland’s text has, at times, some plot holes that slightly hinder the brilliant flow of the text, What is undeniable is that there is still a powerful impact felt thanks to the top-tier cast and their director, Jeremy Herrin.