David Ireland clearly revels in transgression. He delights in violence, both physical and verbal, getting audiences to laugh at the most appalling things.
Sometimes this technique is effective, as it was in Cyprus Avenue, staged at the Royal Court in 2016, a play in which a man became dangerously convinced his tiny baby looked like Gerry Adams. Sometimes it backfires, as it did spectacularly with the aptly named I Promise You Sex and Violence.
It takes skill but also, crucially, care to walk this line – and Ireland’s new play Ulster American is not careful. It hurls itself into murky moral waters with the glee of a kid jumping into puddles.
An American movie star (Darrell D’Silva) has been enticed by an English director (Robert Jack) to star in what he believes to be a bankable Irish play. What he’s completely failed to comprehend is that its playwright, Rachel (Lucianne McEvoy), is a British protestant, and her play is fiercely pro-Unionist. The lead character even has a speech in which he calls for the killing of all Fenians.
The performances are uniformly superb, the cast is completely committed to the material, and the actors’ timing is excellent. Gareth Nicholls’ production is also slick and tautly constructed and most of the jokes are well-engineered.
But there’s something crass at the core of the play. It’s having too much fun pushing its buttons, and can’t resist throwing in an extended riff on rape for the hell of it (not to mention a throwaway gag about being trans). The actor and director mull over who they would rape, if they had to, if a gun were pointed at their head.
Comedy that explores the boundaries of taste, what a society deems appropriate to laugh at, serves a vital purpose. Shock should be part of a writer’s toolkit. One could also argue that this scene illustrates the way in which men fail to understand the damage such dehumanising banter does, the hurt it can cause.
But this play is not really doing those things. Or at least, it’s not doing them well. Its targets are too easy, its swipes at them too wide.
D’Silva is excellent as an actor of towering ego, suitably charismatic and imposing. But the character is a stereotype, ditto the director, even though Jack plays him with a delicious, skittish energy. McEvoy brings more in the way of nuance to the character of Rachel, but even this is lost as the play unconvincingly escalates towards its predictably messy end.
Ireland lays into the commodification of Irish culture, the way stories of the Troubles are packaged by the theatre and film industry, and the way women’s art is still so often dismissed for being “emotional”. At times, the play is funny, often very funny. But it’s also often rather ugly.