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David Ireland: ‘I feel compelled to write about the Troubles’

David Ireland. Photo: Declan English David Ireland. Photo: Declan English

David Ireland hasn’t slept. In a Dublin cafe, the morning after the opening night of his new play Cyprus Avenue, the Northern Irish-born playwright and actor is found tapping at his laptop. Between scripting a soap opera and preparing for an audition, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Cyprus Avenue, a co-production by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and London’s Royal Court, stars Stephen Rea as an Ulster Loyalist who is convinced that his five-week-old granddaughter is the person he reviles the most: the republican politician Gerry Adams.

Let’s talk about that artistic decision. “I think the Abbey would prefer if I didn’t,” he laughs.

From the beginning of the commission, Ireland was reminded that nothing performed should be libellous. Adams, in fact, has never been the subject, and the most offence caused might be the news that he wasn’t the first to spring to mind – “Initially, I thought the baby should be Martin McGuinness, because Martin McGuinness looks like a baby.” The question of libel had never occurred to Ireland before. A few years ago, in a piece for Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, he alluded to a well-known public figure in a comic monologue about a politician being a serial killer. “He could have sued me,” he says in disbelief.

Can’t Forget About You at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, in 2014. Photo: Steffan Hill
Can’t Forget About You at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, in 2014. Photo: Steffan Hill

Ireland turned to playwriting as an unemployed actor desperate to generate roles for himself. After three years in Glasgow living on benefits and without auditions, he moved back into his mother’s house in Belfast to write about the city of his childhood. A film starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt struck up production in the area at the same time. Many locals presumed Ireland had come home to work on it. “It killed me,” he admits.

“I did have a thought at one point: I know actors that are in that movie. I could go into one of their trailers and tell them: ‘You shouldn’t be in this movie; I should be in this movie. Give me your part,’ and threaten them with violence.”

Ireland’s soft voice might seem unlikely to form such extremes, but he’s building an impressive playwriting career on just that. From the scenario in the actor’s trailer he developed his first serious play, What the Animals Say.

Northern Ireland is a through line in his plays, which are often populated by characters hung over from the violence of the past. How have the Troubles shaped the current landscape? “Oh God, I don’t know,” he replies, rubbing his hand across his forehead as if it were a question he’s been contemplating for some time.

“I remember seeing this documentary when I was a teenager. James Ellis was being interviewed, he was a great Northern Irish actor. He said that the best plays about the Troubles were yet to be written. And he said that the best plays will come after the Troubles have ended. That really resonated with me.


Q&A: David Ireland

What was your first non-theatre job? Administrative assistant at the Dundonald Community Projects in east Belfast. It was an organisation that mowed old ladies’ lawns, and did their painting and decorating.
What was your first professional theatre job? King Lear at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, with Tom Courtenay as Lear. I was understudying David Tennant, and I was playing the King of France. It was all downhill from there; I think that was the most high-profile acting job I’ve ever had.
What is your next job? I’ve written a play called Sadie for Field Day Theatre Company. It makes Cyprus Avenue look like Mary Poppins.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t listen to anybody. I had a feeling nobody knew what they were talking about. Don’t listen to anybody unless you really respect them.
Who or what was your biggest influence? I have to say Eminem. I was trying to write plays, and I was listening to 2001 – the Dr Dre album – and Eminem’s appearances on it. I think I was trying to write like Tom Stoppard or David Hare, and I was like, ‘Why am I trying to be like these guys when I’m more like Eminem?’
What’s your best advice for auditions? This is a weird piece of advice. I try to act like an actor I really admire. I go in and play it like that actor would play it. It gives me extra confidence. I go in and they say: ‘David?’, and I think: ‘You’re not David Ireland, you’re Philip Seymour Hoffman.’
If you hadn’t been a playwright or actor, what would you have been? Maybe a journalist. I’d probably end up like Julie Burchill or maybe even Katie Hopkins. I’d probably ending up writing very controversial columns in the Daily Mail.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? I can’t hear the name of ‘the Scottish play’. It makes me anxious. I get very suspicious when I’m in the theatre, and I keep looking for signs from the universe. I don’t really believe it, but it’s still in there.

“A lot of people would prefer if I didn’t write about the Troubles. When someone writes a play about the Troubles and the peace process, some people roll their eyes and say: ‘Oh no, not another one.’ But I feel compelled to write about it. I have no choice. I think all writers write about their obsessions, and I think most obsessions come from early childhood. I was born in Belfast, bang in the Troubles, and I saw what was going on around me, so I didn’t really have a choice but to write about it. I don’t know if I’m saying anything useful, interesting or new about it, but I’m still going to write about it.”

Ireland’s treatment of the subject does feel fresh. In Everything Between Us, his most produced play to date, two sisters clash behind the scenes of an imagined truth and reconciliation commission in Northern Ireland. One is resentful of the softening of Unionist thinking, and is armed with a flinching arsenal of racist, homophobic and prejudicial remarks. Ireland’s plays often feel like a crash course in psychoanalysing offenders, but they’re not without sympathy for crumbling identities.

The late Northern Irish playwright Christina Reid, for whom the Troubles were a recurring theme, claimed that her work experienced a sudden unpopularity after the Northern Irish peace process. Is there a danger of becoming outmoded for writing about Northern Irish politics?

“Can’t Forget About You, the play I wrote for the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, was an attempt at writing a romantic comedy, but it was unavoidable to talk about sectarianism and conflict in it. A friend said: ‘If that play wasn’t set in Belfast, if you didn’t have the most likeable character saying ‘Fenian’ in every other sentence, that play would be travelling all over the world.’ He was probably right.

“It might be a trap, but you can’t think about that. You’ve just got to write what you’ve got to write. Sometimes, when you write about the Troubles, people think it’s parochial. But so many great writers have written about the countries they are from.”

CV: David Ireland

Born: 1976, Carrickfergus, County Antrim
Training: Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now Royal Conservatoire of Scotland)
Landmark productions: Everything Between Us (2010), Can’t Forget About You (2013)
Awards: Meyer Whitworth award for Everything Between Us (2011), Stewart Parker Trust BBC Radio Drama award for Everything Between Us (2011)
Agent: Lisa Foster from Alan Brodie

Cyprus Avenue runs at the Royal Court Theatre, London, from April 5-May 7

Read The Stage review here

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