In the modern world, where it seems chaos reigns, the indeterminacy of the future can have many people clinging to the certainty of discrimination, exclusion, and hatred tighter than ever before. For loyalist Protestant Eric, the trauma of a past broken by terrorism and fear collides with the intimidating future of freedom and unlimited possibilities with devastating effects.
David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue hones in on a man in crisis, overcome by the unpredictability of the world and fear of the violence he lived through in the Northern Ireland Conflict of the late 20th century. Framed as a recollection during his first psychologist’s appointment, Eric (Roy Barker) tells the story of how his granddaughter’s resemblance to former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams leads him to conclude he must kill her to rid his house and his family of the infiltration of Northern Irish Catholics.
Eric is a dry man not prone to sentimentality. He is blunt about his disinterest in children and generalised conceptions of love in a stereotypically masculine remove. He is quick to reveal his hatred of people of colour, women, and Catholics but just as quick to explain his discrimination and slurs are not based in real hatred, only a belief that those groups of people are wrong. It is disquieting to see bigotry in all its glory but represented as innocuous and humorous in a seemingly harmless old white man. For those who suffer at the hands of bigoted and hateful old white men, the poor, women, people of colour, queer communities, the disabled, etc, then this man’s determination to cling to his right to discriminate is simply representative of daily life.
Director Anna Houston plays up the realism of Ireland’s script with Ester Karuso-Thurn’s clean white set and plenty of realistic cool and warm washes from Matt Cox. In this way Houston seems to be arguing for Cyprus Avenue to operate as witness to contemporary hatred and right political conservatism by mirroring the real world with that within the play. However, this works to the detriment of the nuance and subtlety of Eric’s mental state and the complexity of time as an element of a psychological thriller. For Eric, the past, present, and future have converged in a complicated and confusing uncertainty that he is struggling to right but the insistence that this is simply imagined, a fact of his mental illness, and not a greater consequence of trauma and global fear, flattens the reach of Ireland’s story.
Similarly, the characters of Eric’s family, his daughter Julie (Amanda McGregor) and wife Bertie (Jude Gibson), are placed in a difficult position to navigate his distorted reality as though it were true. Their adaptation to his rapidly changing mental state and perspective comes across as inconsistent and distractingly reactive. Gibson as Bertie, in the climax of Eric’s violence, admirably contorts her love and history with Eric into the unpredictably present while maintaining a distant skepticism about his ramblings. What is perhaps most difficult about the characterisation of Julie and Bertie is their blindness to Eric’s hatred and their surprise that they are included in his bigotry. Particularly as the production encourages the othering of Eric and his attitudes, it would be wise to remember that based on Sydney theatre audience demographics, this man is likely to be a member of your own family.
On the other hand, Lloyd Allison-Young as the imagined loyalist thug and Branden Christine as Eric’s psychologist both present well-rounded and established characters. Allison-Young’s Slim is wild but vulnerable and captures the passionate earnestness of those who are desperate to see the world change. Whereas Christine’s psychologist characterisation is wearied and uninterested in playing down Eric’s hateful relationship with the world even as she attempts to mine his memories for the motivating factors of his violence. Both are points of light in the production.
The conflation of domestic terrorism and bigotry with mental illness is disturbing in this script. Statistically, people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of violence perpetrated by mentally well people than they are to be the ones committing violent acts. But the linking of far-right mentality with a lack of education or disordered mental capacity is a distracting myth used to stigmatise conservatives but which ultimately stigmatises the mentally unwell while swaying attention away from the rich and powerful who have a vested interest in continuing divisive and fear-mongering media tactics. Constructing people with unsavoury or dangerous opinions as mentally ill does not address the core issues of inequality and power that drive political actions.
While the extrapolations between Eric’s violence and the state of wider global politics is clear, the conclusions of Cyprus Avenue leave little room for nuance or reflection, instead seeming to advocate for a detached voyeurism towards dangerous and discriminatory beliefs. Over the next generation, the power dynamics of the world will shift and those afraid of uncertainty and unfamiliarity will turn to far more drastic tactics to maintain the status quo.
Cyprus Avenue is running at the Old Fitz from May 15th – June 8th