Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), May 13 – 29, 2021
Playwright: David Ireland
Director: Shane Anthony
Cast: Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Brian Meegan, Jeremy Waters
Images by Richard Farland
Ruth has come to London, from Northern Ireland, to begin rehearsals on her play. Unlike the show’s lead actor Jay, and its director Leigh, Ruth the playwright is not a star of the stage, and neither is she a man. This gendered imbalance of power is apparent right from the start, in fact even before Ruth appears, when the two men involve themselves with political conversations, in the absence of anyone who might understand first-hand, any experience of marginalisation. Ruth’s subsequent entrance proves an unbearable disruption, as we witness the savage implementation of patriarchal violence upon the young woman, at her every attempt to exert her rights, as a supposed equal creator in the artistic process.
All of this happens in David Ireland’s satirical Ulster American, a piercing interrogation of the uncomfortable relationship that the privileged have, with what seems to be a trendy phenomenon, of performative virtue signalling. Both Jay and Leigh believe themselves to be on the right side of history, always consciously using language that demonstrate their purported progressiveness, but it is their action that speak louder. In Ruth’s presence, the men cannot help but operate from positions of power and authority, fiercely protecting their status of dominance, and therefore the status quo.
Irreverent and genuinely funny, Ireland uses searing comedy to make palatable, ideas that are usually conveyed too dry and sanctimonious. It is perhaps an ironic choice to have a white man at its helm, but director Shane Anthony injects excellent nuance to ensure that we are always made aware of meanings and intentions. The production is fast-paced, enjoyably so, and Anthony validates that entertainment does not have to come at the price of a valuable message. Additionally, set design by Veronique Bennett and costumes by Claudia Kryszkiewicz, contribute a sleekness to the staging’s imagery, further convincing us of Ulster American‘s dissections of the contemporary bourgeoisie.
Actor Harriet Gordon-Anderson brings to the role of Ruth, a marvellous complexity that prevents her from devolving into a simple victim of circumstance. There is a confidence to her presence that offers fortitudinous juxtaposition against the two hysterical men railing against her. Oscar winner Jay is played by the highly engaging Jeremy Waters, who once again establishes himself as a storyteller of the highest calibre, in a brilliantly amusing and sarcastic take on the vacuous Hollywood monster archetype. Brian Meegan as English theatre director Leigh, is comically imposturous, and wonderfully authentic in its portrayal of a man who imagines himself a much better person than he actually is.
So much of art education, involves a certain inculcation of humility. Whether in the making of, or in the appreciation of it, one learns that the ego, is almost always a destructive force. In Ulster American, we watch egos get in the way, and observe how a person’s sense of aggrandized selfhood, prevents the creation of anything good. This manifests as a fight for space in David Ireland’s play, with the implication that those with privilege can only conceive of justice as a zero-sum game. When under threat, Jay and Leigh scramble to win back lost ground, always thinking in terms of deprivation, instead of dreaming up possibilities of more for everyone. Ruth has to fight tooth and nail, even resorting to unscrupulous means, but that is only because no real recourse is available to the oppressed.
Greed is not good, yet it remains central, in the pursuit of what so many of us perceive to mean success. Our lives need redefinition. Priorities and values need to be adjusted so that justice can prevail. It is debatable if a revolutionary overhaul is the answer, or if small steps and big words can count towards improvement, but to do nothing is without question, reprehensible.