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Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland Royal Court Theatre

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
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The crying game

"It happened that my daughter had a daughter," says Eric (Stephen Rea) to Clinical Psychologist Bridget (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo).

In his grey-blue suit, Eric seems as disorientated as someone who has woken up in an unfamiliar forest but he is also as restless as a ticking time bomb.

Theatre, Stephen Rea, Royal Court Theatre, David Ireland, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, Amy Molloy, Chris Corrigan
Eric (Stephen Rea) and Bridget (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo). Photograph by Ros Kavanagh.

The action switches from the medical room to the East Belfast family home where we see Eric with his wife Bernie (Andrea Irvine), his daughter Julie (Amy Molloy) and new arrival Mary Mae (played by a doll).

Eric is an unrepentant Paisley-era Unionist, with hints of a damaging childhood still bedevilling him. Reality for Eric is filtered through the dark lens of sectarianism. He is convinced that the baby resembles Gerry Adams, former President of Sinn Féin. Can such an absurd conviction progress a play from comedy to tragedy? The taut control and drumbeat dialogue of David Ireland's script means that it does exactly that.

When Eric draws a beard on Mary Mae to test his theory I, watching online, laughed along with the pre-COVID-19 shutdown Royal Court audience - whose faces can clearly be seen on the video.

Theatre, Stephen Rea, Royal Court Theatre, David Ireland, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, Amy Molloy, Chris Corrigan
Julie (Amy Molloy). Photograph by Ros Kavanagh.

But the laughter dies down when we wonder what Eric will do next.

Bernie and Julie become exasperated as they try to hold the hinges of family life in place. When Bernie can stand it no more, Eric is banished from the house into the orbit of balaclava-wearing Jimmy, or Slim as he likes to be known. Chris Corrigan brilliantly portrays Slim's combustible combination of daytime TV wisdom (he baulks at killing celebrities) and artillery-fire explosions of Loyalist rhetoric.

Theatre, Stephen Rea, Royal Court Theatre, David Ireland, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, Amy Molloy, Chris Corrigan
Slim (Chris Corrigan) and Eric (Stephen Rea). Photograph by Ros Kavanagh.

Cyprus Avenue, directed by Vicky Featherstone, comes with a warning of "strong language, discussion of sectarian themes and scenes of extreme violence that some viewers may find disturbing."

But David Ireland gives us just enough hope throughout, that the action is not hurtling towards the pitch-black tunnel which seems to be its inevitable destination. Otherwise, the play would be unbearable to watch.

There is no substitute for live theatre but if online is the only option, Cyprus Avenue, is hard to beat. I have never been to the Royal Court, but it is an intimate enough space to allow the action to translate as well as possible to the screen.

That said, I'm not sure that the location footage of actors in front of Loyalist murals is really necessary. The cast is perfectly capable of conveying complex emotions without dialogue. With Stephen Rea in the lead, everyone has to be at the top of their acting game.

Cyprus Avenue is a Greek tragedy, mixed with Samuel Beckett-like lyrical absurdism but the play is not without optimism. Most people, in Northern and Southern Ireland value the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, more than tribal loyalties, the playwright suggests.

Even so, deeply entrenched hatreds are never easy to bury and will always rise up out of the ground and spit out venom. Cyprus Avenue is a warning if not, hopefully, a prediction of Northern Ireland's future.

Theatre, Stephen Rea, Royal Court Theatre, David Ireland, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, Amy Molloy, Chris Corrigan
Cyprus Avenue, Belfast By Agadant - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland was broadcast on BBC Four in 2019 and was also streamed via the Royal Court website for two months from 27 March 2020.

The playscript is available to buy

It is to be hoped that live audiences get a chance to see the play in the future.

Watch the trailer
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Why? A modern Greek Tragedy which examines the deep roots of sectarianism and its fatal consequences
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