Cyprus Avenue starring Stephen Rea at Royal Court – review

Stephen Rea triumphs as psychotic bigot

★★★★

Stephen Rea in Cyprus Avenue. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

With theatres closed and all of us staying at home due to the coronavirus threat, I thought it might be a good idea to look at some of the theatre shows that were recorded live and are now being made available online or on TV for you to watch from the comfort of your sofa, starting with Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland.

The Royal Court and Abbey Theatre production starring Stephen Rea was filmed live in early 2019 and will be streaming on the Royal Court’s website and on their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts until 26 April 2020.

Cyprus Avenue is a black comedy about a Belfast loyalist. He’s done something bad and he’s seeing a psychiatrist, played by Ronke Adekoleujo. We learn that he’s a bigoted man in fear of losing his identity as British.

In a series of flashbacks he’s seen meeting his granddaughter for the first time and believing that she is Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein. From then on, it’s a rollercoaster ride as he vacillates between his love for his family and its newest member and his prejudice against Gerry Adams and all things Irish catholic.

There are two reasons you need to watch this: David Ireland’s hilarious script and Stephen Rea’s delivery of it. The latter has a face for which the expression ‘hangdog’ could have been invented and Eric’s sadness and confusion and frustration are all in that face. His hunched posture suggests the weight of Irish history.

If, like me, you think of Stephen Rea as an actor who exudes languidness, think again, because the best moment in this play is a monologue, akin to stand up comedy, where Eric races back and forth ranting and raving about Irishness. It had me rolling around on my sofa. That alone is worth the ticket price- if you were paying.

We first meet Eric on a bare stage with the audience on two sides, traverse style- and a nice touch by designer Lizzie Clachan, I thought to suggest the Protestant loyalist, catholic republican divide. The square is also in a sense the inside of Eric’s closed mind with characters appearing and disappearing as he thinks about them. She made a similarly effective use of traverse in the unforgettable Young Vic production of Yerma with Billie Piper.

Amy Molloy and Stephen Rea in Cyprus Avenue. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Stephen Rea is supported by some precision directing from Vicky Featherstone where every move seems to mean something. And some fine actors. Amy Molloy is his daughter Julie who loves her dad but is offended by him, an internal conflict she makes you feel. She represents hope- a younger generation that has grown up with peace and is no longer twisted by sectarian prejudice. Andrea Irvine is Eric’s firm but caring wife and Chris Corrigan steals his scenes as a loyalist terrorist whose lust for violence is tempered by philosophical thoughts.

David Ireland’s script sparks and fizzes

David Ireland’s script sparks and fizzes with laughs at the expense of Eric’s shockingly warped logic and bizarre prejudices (he talks of ‘exotic catholic hairdos direct from the salons of the Vatican’).

As an examination of how loss of identity can lead to bigotry can lead to psychotic behaviour, Cyprus Avenue works well but the ending, which I don’t want to spoil, left me feeling the playwright had gone too far in wanting to shock. It draws comparison with Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant Of Inishmore which, with all due respect to the unquestionable quality of David Ireland’s writing, is a more thought-through play.

What we miss in this filmed version is the way as a member of the theatre audience you would be looking up at the actors and always seeing an opposing audience in the background as well the whole stage and its boundaries.  While we gain from extreme close-ups of Stephen Rea’s magnificently craggy face, we lose quite a bit of the time the stage actor’s art of suggesting emotion and meaning through their whole body.

And, of course, the film director chooses what you should look at and while I accept that Stephen Rea is riveting, there were times when I wished, as in some football coverage, I could switch to a different camera looking at another actor’s reaction. The addition of some location filming in Belfast is a mistake. It did not add anything for me and merely broke the tension of the intimate enclosed stage setting.

I found the play flawed but the production is tight and Stephen Rea gives what must be the performance of a lifetime.

Click here to view this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

You can watch Cyprus Avenue online until 31 May:

Click here to view Cyprus Avenue on YouTube

Click here to watch Cyprus Avenue on the Royal Court website

The Cane – Royal Court – with Nicola Walker

Magnificent cast featuring Nicola Walker, Maggie Steed and Alun Armstrong

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

Alun Armstrong and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

A much loved teacher is about retire but his home is under siege by children from his school. His estranged daughter comes to visit her parents. His regular use of the cane many years earlier has sparked the protest but when we discover that his school has been declared to be failing by Ofsted, it seems the protest may be more against the old ways of doing things- the patriarchial society in which men dominated through the use of violence.

I’m not sure how much I believed the set up or the ending but Mark Ravenhill has written a powerful script. It not only creates a tense atmosphere and powerful dialogue as the characters prowl round each other and take vicious swipes, it also provokes a lot of thought. It’s a tribute to it that the more you think about it, the more complex it seems.

Although this play is primarily an attack on the patriarchy, its strength is that it also asks questions about why people behave the way they do and whether today’s institutions and the people embracing them- in this case Academies and Ofsted- have more similarities than differences.

Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Because, although the play is primarily about this teacher, it is also about any of us who work for or deal with institutions. The daughter is heavily involved in academies and describes an almost zombie like atmosphere of pupils facing front and silence in the corridors that is supposedly because the pupil comes first but actually sounds like the way the people come first in the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea

She talks about the way schools must conform to Ofsted’s way of looking at things and use their language. She has a rigid belief in her institution as much as her father believes in his.

Powerful script by Mark Ravenhill superbly directed by Vicky Featherstone

We gain insights into why the father, inheriting a culture of violence, continued it because it was his duty. This sounds very like the ‘I was only obeying orders’ excuses of Nazi concentration camp soldiers. It’s clear he liked exercising the power. But his daughter is no angel. In fact, in many ways the play is about her because the older generation are on the way out. The question becomes, does the present generation with its controls and testing, have its own kind of cane and its own closed mindedness.

She is manipulative and coercive in trying to get her own way. She doesn’t want reconciliation, she wants revenge. We begin to suspect she has orchestrated the protest. We see her too flaring into violent language and acts of violence, not dissimilar to her father.

Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson

The action takes place in a sitting room, designed by Chloe Langford, that is almost bare of furniture and decoration, so it feels like a cage or a boxing ring. The protagonists are trapped there and nothing distracts from what the they say and do in Vicky Featherstone‘s brilliant production.

All three actors give subtle, nuanced performances. Maggie Steed as the oppressed, bullied, proudly loyal wife but also nasty when cornered.  Alun Armstrong with calm reasonableness, red faced anger and underlying weakness all somehow present whichever was being displayed at the time. And Nicola Walker so natural in the way she talks and moves, so incredibly still when she was observing the others, making her reasonable character’s unreasonable behaviour deeply disturbing.

At the end, the play is pulled back to look at the sins of the now ageing patriarchal generation but such is the intelligence of this fine play you question your own values.

The Cane continues at Royal Court Theatre London until 26 January 2019

Watch the YouTube review of The Cane starring Nicola Walker on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel below