Eric Miller has a new grandbaby who he’s not all that fussed about. ‘How do we know she’s the best baby in Belfast?’ He says. ‘There might be better babies.’ He’s goaded by his wife and daughter to hold her, coo at her, and just as he’s beginning to see what all the fuss is about her sweet wee face is replaced by that of the man who epitomises everything he despised, the core root of his anguish and fragile sense of self. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader. As a die-hard Ulster Loyalist, he is shaken, and tragedy ensues.
Though the plot follows a man having a mental breakdown and is very literally about Ulster Loyalism. It also deals with other sectarian attitudes, with Eric maintaining that he is not racist, but proceeds to make racist remarks to his Black British psychologist, played by Saskia Ashdown. He is also not a misogynist, though he shouts sexist slurs at his daughter. And most laughably, he doesn’t hate Catholics, even though it is this very hatred that is manifesting in the face of his granddaughter.
David Hayman is brilliantly unnerving as Eric, highlighting the duality that is tearing his character apart. One moment he is crumpled, fragile and apologetic, a victim. The next he is brash, broad, and capable of violence. His performance reveals how aggressors are so often victims, that people are much more complex than being heroes or villains.
The set is awash with grey, a nod to the grey areas that the protagonist struggles to comprehend, an apt backdrop to a piece about the absurdity of polarisation. Writer David Ireland said recently to SNACK that he wasn’t concerned with cultural relevance, it was writing truth (and fear of becoming his father) that propelled this script. Originally shown in Dublin in 2016, it’s this sense of harsh reality that makes the piece still ring so true today that it could’ve been written yesterday, which is actually quite a depressing premise as polarisation continues to rip the world apart.
But it is this very grey area that many theatres are dwelling in at the moment, not in the sense of nuance, but in making commercial decisions and being afraid to take risks. When asked about why people haven’t rushed back to the theatre after the pandemic, Ireland suggested that ‘theatre is more in jeopardy from the timidity of the artists and producers. Everyone is terrified of saying the wrong thing.’
Equal parts devastating and hilarious (it is a play about sectarianism, after all) go catch Cyprus Avenue at the Tron while you can, it’s showing until 25th March. Read our interview with writer David Ireland here.