REVIEW: Cyprus Avenue

While the power of Stephen Rea's screen presence is undeniable, the Belfast-born actor's ability to command a stage is peerless. His frequently forceful and at times astonishingly subtle levels of facial and physical expression seem ideal for any role he's given. And as Eric, the loyalist who dominates affairs and events in David Ireland's Cyprus Avenue, directed by Vicky Featherstone, Rea is as good as he has arguably ever been. Regardless of how incomprehensible or reprehensible the character and his actions may seem, we are always fascinated by him. It's that kind of role - and that kind of play.

Originally staged two years ago, Cyprus Avenue arrives at Belfast's MAC having already enjoyed a run at Dublin's Abbey Theatre this year, with an extended summer run in New York to follow. Returning from the original cast, along with Rea, are Amy Molloy as Eric's daughter Julie and Chris Corrigan as paramilitary Slim, with Ronke Adekoluejo joining the ensemble as Eric's psychologist Bridget and Andrea Irvine now playing Eric's wife Bernie.

As you may gather from the characters, Cyprus Avenue can be seen as a sort of family drama with political and psychological elements. While often amusing, it also delves deeply into themes of culture and identity in an atmosphere that veers, extremely effectively, between the hilarious and the horrifying.

Director Featherstone chooses to "centralise" the action, as the MAC's audience is split into two halves either side of Lizzie Clachan's minimalist but effective set. This is a human play where the central actor does most of the talking about his "issues" and the pivotal, but not the only, job of the supporting cast is to react to him and them.

And Eric's central issue is that he cannot connect with his baby granddaughter - when he looks into her eyes, all he can see is Gerry Adams staring right back at him! Ridiculous though that may sound, especially to Julie and Bernie, Rea sells it as entirely believable, a bizarre and troubling reflection of Eric's mental state.

His pride, stubbornness and monomania is such that his weekly visits to Bridget, who is thankfully thick-skinned and mature enough to deal with him and his open, discomforting crudity, are essential. The line between exposition and naturalism in their conversations is worryingly minute, but the strength of the performances keep them on the level of realistic. Pretty much the same could be said about Eric's exchanges with all the other characters, which flesh out what could merely be all about Eric into something much more interesting - and frightening. Because when Eric's illusions and delusions permeate everyone else's lives, you know there will be consequences.

Cyprus Avenue is exceptional in showing us how even the best-intentioned minds can be warped, or even permanently damaged, by prejudice. By seeing only what they want to see, choosing to define unfamiliar societies only by their most commonly sold quirks. Wasn't it Damon Albarn who argued that there must be more to life than stereotypes? That, if you'll forgive me, is all a blur to Eric, whose lone oasis comes in the series of values he rather pathetically battles to cling onto.

The manner in which Rea delivers his monologues works in shifting one's feelings towards Eric from anger to - almost - pity. What may come across as a positive means of changing attitudes and greater open-mindedness in some cultures chills Eric, as a means of losing the identity he has always believed in and wants to retain. In contrasting the commonly-believed pros of flexibility with one troubled and troubling individual's fear of conformity, and what can result from it all, Cyprus Avenue is as "shocking" and "relevant" as it has been claimed to be - and also indelible viewing.

Simon Fallaha

Cyprus Avenue ran at The MAC from May 23-26.

Recent Theatre Reviews