Theatre

With its pitch-perfect production of David Ireland’s wickedly funny Ulster American, Red Stitch Actors Theatre continues to do some of the most interesting work to be seen on Australian stages. By Peter Craven.

Ulster American

Sarah Sutherland and Steve Bastoni in Ulster American at Red Stitch Actors Theatre.
Credit: Teresa Noble

It’s a rarer thing than it should be to have a thoroughly enjoyable time at the theatre and to have it as a consequence of a play that is razor sharp, brilliantly conceived and superbly performed. Brett Cousins’ direction of Ulster American at Red Stitch is swiftly expert and flamboyant and this three-hander is splendidly done. The cast comprises Sarah Sutherland as the Northern Irish playwright who identifies with being British, Steve Bastoni as the idiot Oscar-winning Hollywood actor attached to his Irish Catholic background, and David Whiteley as the inept and duplicitous director who would like to run the National Theatre and has to negotiate his own dire histrionic version of the Troubles.

Ulster American is a savage farce of wonderful gymnastic surprises and turnabouts and everybody should see it, especially as Boris Johnson heads down the runway to Brexit, having prorogued parliament to stop people preventing his tricks like something from the 17th century, and no one knows whether perfidious Albion (as the French like to call it) will sink or fly.

The play is a tremendous belly laugh of counterpointed political incorrectness and political savviness, which reduces all the platitudes of the left and right to forms of shrieked gibberish mocked by a trio of exorbitantly talented luvvies. The three proceed to tear each other apart in the name of cartoon positions, each with an intimate resemblance to positions we cherish.

The playwright David Ireland – who hails from the northern part of that isle – is a master of black comedy. The demonology he proceeds to animate is full of things that not only defy taboos but also defile them and laugh at them and jump up and down on them with fiendish glee.

But Ireland is a power in the land that has always punched above its weight in English-language drama: as Northrop Frye once said, the Irish dominate English drama from Ben Jonson to Pinter. Three years ago, the great Stephen Rea did Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue at that most legendary of Dublin theatres, the Abbey, and the Edinburgh Fringe cast of Ulster American performed this play at the Adelaide Festival in March this year. It is, however, hard to imagine that anyone could outshine this Red Stitch production.

What a sumptuous horror show it is. The Hollywood star is a godsend to the director, who gets off on the wrong foot by imagining the actor means one of the Baldwin actor brothers (Alec et al.) when he is, in fact, referring to the distinguished African–American writer James Baldwin, author of The Fire Next Time and Go Tell It on the Mountain.

This misprision is mild compared with the game the chaps play – the director in the most gingerly fashion but he does succumb – as to which famous women they would choose to do terrible things to, should they be compelled in order to save the world.

Then the playwright – who has a very difficult relationship with her hospitalised mum – comes on, and despite her violent adoration of Quentin Tarantino, as well as her exultation at the prospect of what the actor might do for her in Hollywood, she turns out to be a rollicking nightmare of attitudes that might seem more appropriate to a devotee of the Reverend Ian Paisley.

It would be wrong to give away either the gags or the plotline, both of which are hilarious and audacious, but the Red Stitch production of Ulster American had the audience laughing in great rippling waves of pleasure – aghast and delighted at once. This smaller company, this actors’ theatre (and we know what a fearful thing that can be), always produces work that is at least interesting and that every so often, as in this case, delights the heart and lets the mind romp in an orgy of barely licit pleasure.

Ulster American is among other things a play about the terrible matter of Ireland in the context of the terrifying runaway train represented by Brexit. It’s also a play about entrenched internecine tribal prejudices, and a half-affectionate, half-eviscerating homage to the dimwittedness of theatre people and those who ride with them.

This production has precisely the right combination of measure and pace so that we have the weird – and unusual – experience of seeing a play that is perfectly paced and comes in at exactly the right time: an interval-less 75 minutes or so that feels neither long nor short.

The reason it doesn’t seem short is that Cousins, as director, ensures the counterpoint between apparently leisurely exposition and a helter-skelter comeuppance is adept.

And the performances are dreamily beautiful executions of types we not only recognise but also, from time to time, shudderingly inhabit.

All three of the characters are silly beyond the wit of humankind. Steve Bastoni is a walking epitome of dumb-arsed histrionic grandeur, his every word carved out of a self-regard that is frayed only by the actor’s besetting vice of insecurity. He is wonderfully fatuous, not least when he is virtuous and is winning in terms of the moral stakes. David Whiteley as the earnest and conniving English theatre director is a marvellous instantiation of the British capacity – widely shared, of course, across humanity – to be all at once civil, deceitful and thick beyond belief.

There are some superb moments that are virtual coups de théâtre, as when the actor gets out his actor’s holiest of icons, or when Whiteley’s director suddenly rages with unholy passion at the thought that the playwright may not agree with him about Brexit. Sarah Sutherland as the playwright has what is probably the grandest role of the three. Her character is in the vicinity of catastrophe yet, in the midst of riotous Ulsterwoman invective justifying atrocity against the papist pigs, she is also capable of extraordinary stillness and, as it were, a “real” intimation of outrage and tragedy.

It’s a very fine performance indeed, full of bravura colour and high hopes that gradually descend into execration and scorn – some of it ghastly, some of it justified – and then a kind of mute lifting of the chin towards the vista of extinction.

There’s something just a bit poignantly Australian about the fact that some of the best drama Melbourne sees is put on in this tiny theatre adjoining a school, St Michael’s Grammar, and that Red Stitch can be so on the money with a potential hit such as Ulster American – rather more so than one can expect with the state theatre companies.

This is a theatre that presupposes, in practice, the viability of a text-based, more or less well-made bit of dramaturgy and proceeds to produce real instances of it, which in the case of Ulster American deserves to be seen by anyone who cares about theatre.

David Ireland’s play has the pungency and murderous, scandalous wit we associate with the best of stand-up but with a further richness, which comes from the complexity of the fully dramatic context and the shifts of colour in the trio of characters.

It is as far from being a conventional piece of theatre – even if you might quarrel with aspects of the plotline – as one of Joe Orton’s masterpieces at the height of his powers. And it’s that Orton-esque sucking up of scandal, his pure indulgence in the squalor of human attitude and delusion, that makes Ulster American such a hell of a farce, grandly conceived and splendidly realised.

It’s a delight to find that a ballsy play such as this, full of the venom of extroverted intelligence and with a superb central role for a woman, can turn into such a thing of captivation and fun. We’re used to the high-and-mighty mastery of the Irish, not least because of Martin McDonagh and his cinematic masterpiece In Bruges or indeed his Leenane trilogy, the first of which is being revived later this year by the Sydney Theatre Company (minus Rebel Wilson, alas).

But Ulster American is a reminder of the mighty sea of articulate blarney out of which the Irish drama comes. It was Beckett who summed it up giving an answer to why: “It’s the British – they buggered us into glory.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 7, 2019 as "Farce majeure". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.