We enter a small but perfectly formed room with a low level traverse stage. Completely white and clinical there is nothing in the room but the audience areas and 2 chairs in one corner of the square carpeted staging, and one chair diagonally in the other with a small table containing a jug of water and a glass. Very minimalist, the area is open to the unfolding of absolutely anything.
Based in Belfast, we meet Eric played by Stephen Rea who is well known for recent television programmes such as War and Peace and Dickensian, and his counsellor Bridget played by Wunmi Mosaku, who sit the furthest opposite each other as they can be. The story unfolds from the point of view of Eric reminiscing past events that have lead him to this current situation. We begin with the simple sense that the man needs help and this is all it is. As the hour or so passes, his insanity becomes even more palpable and chaotic leading to actions and events that are dark and for the audience, shocking.
The play cleverly plays on cultural, emotional, political and religious identity. The main concept is of the Catholic and Protestant war and prejudice in Ireland. Eric representing the North consistently professes that he doesn’t hate Catholics or the South, yet his rants and racist wordings express otherwise. Cleverly, the use of a black character in the counsellor highlights the sheer ridiculous nature of Eric in feeling these ways – unintentionally relating to African and black culture in a racist manner, the counsellor turns this around to show that there is no difference in cultures if they were to go simply by his description. With the state of theatre at the moment looking into the diversity of actors, Wunmi Mosaku’s character has the most brilliant line noting that she is not African, she is British. Being born and bred in Britain, this is her identity and this, intentionally or not, pokes attention to the current theatrical world and its lack of diversity and the absurdity of this. Just as Eric is Irish despite being in the North, and Mosaku’s Character Bridget is British and not African, the casting of characters should be based on their talent and not based on their race, ability, gender or orientation. It is no one’s business what you are, but what you can bring to the table, which Bridget points out is wrong with Eric’s stereotypical view of the world.
The writing of the play is so intelligent, that a lot of comedy comes from the irony of the situations but along with the actor’s brilliant portrayal, the sense of timing and take on the words makes the majority of the production extremely funny.
This is what makes the slow building crescendo even more shocking. Eric’s mental state deteriorates more and more over the hour to lead to a huge case of seeing red and committing horrendous atrocities. The well-constructed violence in production is so realistic that writing this review and remembering this still makes me queasy. The once white and clinical staging becomes messy with mud, items thrown across the carpet and blood leaking from the floor. Symbolising Eric’s mind, his once innocence is tainted and becomes very dark and messy. While slowly building and pushing you into a sense of false security with the comedy, the ending where chaos ensures but suddenly stops, returning to where we began in Eric’s retelling of the story. We are left shocked and amazed at this story, on this stage, at this moment in time and the beautiful performances by the actors in this production.
Looking around the audience, not one single person looks relaxed as if their thoughts of the story presented on stage had still to be resolved. Being left vulnerable as an audience and to change preconceptions is quite a skill, Cyprus Avenue written by David Ireland and directed by Vicky Featherstone achieves this beautifully, disturbingly and intelligently.