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Festival review: Ulster American

Adelaide Festival

Ulster American gives Adelaide audiences a rare pre-West End chance to see a brilliant and shocking satirical play with actors at the height of their form.

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The scenario is set in the opening line: an important new play is to be produced and the three principals meet in a serviced apartment the night before rehearsals begin.

Northern Irish playwright Ruth (Lucianne McEvoy) and English director Leigh (Robert Jack) are nervous about meeting famous American actor Jay (Darrell D’Silva), the Oscar-winning star who they hope will take them places they want to go.

Leigh has ambitions to direct the National Theatre and Jay can take Ruth to Hollywood and introduce her to Tarantino. They need this guy! Before 20 minutes are out the over-bearing Jay has made snuggly arrangements with Ruth, and the initially-timid Leigh has grand visions of the future.

But things turn around on two pivots in this play presented by Scotland’s Traverse Theatre. The first is a hypothetical question about sexual assault which creates issues that rebound on characters throughout the play.

The second comes when Jay discovers he is to play a Protestant in the play and not a Catholic, as he had thought. He had read the script and not understood that the Fenians he was to be killing in the play were Catholics; now he wants the whole thing changed or he’s out.

Jay’s ignorance of the world outside his home is one issue. But the demands for a re-write draw out issues of identity and politics for all the characters. Is Ruth British, as she maintains, or Irish, as Jay wants her to be? And what of Jay’s claims to be Irish-American when he has never been to Ireland and knows so little? And who is Leigh, as he flaps about trying to appease his star?

Belfast-born playwright David Ireland’s script is tight and clever. It nudges across the boundary lines of generally acceptable gender and political discussion. Issues twist and return to haunt characters. That Ireland has created such a blackly comic piece out of this material is a great achievement.

Director Gareth Nicholls has given the actors telling non-verbal gestures that develop character throughout. Leigh, in particular, grows into a Machiavellian deviousness.

The stage is fully used as the high-tension discussions catapult to shocking violence and a final-line zinger.

The Adelaide Festival program points out that it is rare for it to present work that’s “bound for the West End and Broadway”, rather than coming in the opposite direction, adding: “If you miss it in Adelaide, expect a very long flight followed by a very long queue for cancellations.” I am inclined to agree. See it this week.

Ulster American is at the Dunstan Playhouse until March 17. Read InDaily’s Q&A interview with director Gareth Nicholls here, and see more Adelaide Festival stories and reviews here.

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