An American, an Irishwoman, and an Englishman come together to discuss an exciting new theatre project that will provoke the London scene. Except the distinctions aren’t really that clean-cut and even a gentle nudge throws the balance of identity, religion, and politics into a messy, urgent disaster.
David Ireland’s script is dark, thrilling, and troublesome as these three characters navigate their personalities, egos, histories, and optics along gender, religious, and national lines. Ruth (Harriet Gordon-Anderson) has written a gritty, violent, real play about the Troubles and Leigh (Brian Meegan) is thrilled to be directing it in London with the huge Hollywood celebrity Jay (Jeremy Waters) in the starring role. But quickly their impressions of each other shift as Irish Catholic decendent Jay learns the play is from Ruth’s Protestant perspective and Leigh refuses to acknowledge the work as British rather than Irish. There was a lot of talk in this production, empty words acknowledging the importance of history and declaring the men’s devotion to feminism, which clearly illustrates the stakes at play in these political issues; the stark difference between disinterested discussion and those facing the real-life consequences of discrimination and violence.
Despite the wordy material, Shane Anthony’s direction is sharp with great tonal shifts balancing on a word or a glance. These relationships were heated, fuelled by long and complicated histories between countries as well as more subtle power imbalances of big men of stage and screen and women behind the scenes. The atmosphere of Leigh’s posh industrial-chic apartment, designed by Veronique Benett, became thick and suffocating as Leigh and Jay repeatedly beat Ruth down, taking control of her play with all of their love and respect. The hypocrisy, vile sexism, and blunt violence oozed out of these characters and became darkly, unbelievably hilarious.
The performances from this small trio cast were superb. Witty, highly attuned, and painfully earnest, their cutting conversation was thrilling to watch. Meegan’s Leigh is smarmy and proud, hidden under a cleverly constructed facade of understanding whereas Waters’s Jay is brutish in his hyper-masculinity, throwing around thought experiments to demonstrate his enlightenment. Their opening conversation was deeply uncomfortable and yet altogether unsurprising for two white male artists. But Meegan and Waters expertly juggled their characters’ true selves and the appearance they want to portray, often misjudging the latter to humorous effect. Ruth’s presence was complicating for the way she threw off assumptions and her willingness to fight dirty. Gordon-Anderson portrayed the playwright as flawed and ambitious but also honest and courageous which was refreshing in a culture that encourages women to take the high road, to choose peace over justice.
In Ireland’s script, Ruth’s character arc is not one of resilience and hope but rather about calling bluffs and escalating threats. For once, in this power struggle between men and women in the arts, the men actually have something to lose. It’s simply delicious.
Ulster American is running at the Seymour Centre from May 13th – 29th
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