Controversy sells, and this afternoon the Traverse was packed to the rafters for back-to-back productions of David Ireland’s Ulster American. Bolstered by an 18+ age restriction, warnings that the endeavor would not be ‘for the faint of heart’ and a Time Out review proclaiming that it goes ‘too far’, the bloodthirsty audience had to squeeze and cramp into Traverse 2 to a soundtrack of American country rock in order to witness the spectacle.
If any artistic discipline has retained the power to shock in the twenty-first century, it’s theatre. There’s something about seeing actual people saying and doing things that’s lost in translation to, say, the silver screen. And, putting it mildly, Ulster American delivers on its salacious promise. The premise is simple: Jay Conway, a prestigious Hollywood actor, and Leigh Carver, a West-End theatre director, sit and discuss a play that they’re about to put on about the troubles in Ireland, whilst they wait for the play’s writer, Ruth Davenport (is that a Twin Peaks reference, and if so, why?). Conway is bombastic, supremely confident, and clearly full of bullshit, whilst Carver, tipsy on red wine, seems intimidated by the actor’s presence. But their conversation begins to sour when Conway asks a question that causes everyone in the audience to gasp: ‘do you think there are any circumstances where it’s morally acceptable to rape someone?’
From then on, believe it or not, it only becomes more breathtakingly savage. Both men say increasingly horrifying things; and then, when Davenport arrives, the whole affair collapses into a heap of misogyny, racism, and prejudice. The religious and geographical politics of each of our characters begin to expose that, despite their play being historical, the tensions over Ireland continue to provoke violence, both emotional and physical, today. Ulster American becomes a sort of involuntary pantomime: the audience oohing and ahing, gasping, laughing, and shouting to the stage at the sheer audacity of the profanity on display. David Ireland is daring us to laugh at awful, despicable statements – and going by the audience I sat with, he succeeds. And, of course, it gets shockingly violent: by the time the carnage was over, the woman next to me was covered in spots of stage blood.
Yet, despite how brutal Ulster American feels – how relentlessly savage it is – there’s a sense that it’s all empty spectacle. Making a rape joke does not suffice as commentary on sexual tension in the #MeToo era. Hell, it doesn’t even suffice as commentary on rape jokes. In this way, David Ireland continues to swipe blindly at massive targets: oh look, here’s a bunch of men making disgusting comments, they’re bad aren’t they? Oh look, here’s an intellectual that supports terrorism, she’s bad isn’t she? Perhaps the lack of real-world impact, then, comes from the fact that these characters aren’t relatable. The rape discussion is so uncomfortable because most of us wouldn’t dream of having such a conversation; the endorsement of terrorism, suicide, racism, and misogyny will offend because the audience finds these views offensive. It’s not that Ireland is exposing uncomfortable truths; he’s simply showing us people who are undeniably doing bad things. It’s correct that these people do exist – and that they’re bad people – but it’s incredibly easy to condemn their actions, we don’t need a play to highlight this truth.
Where he does make some headway is in subtextual discussion of artistic and moral limits. There’s an interesting thread, running through the play (under the surface, out of sight) about context and the role it plays in what we can and cannot say. I personally believe in ultimate free speech – that anyone can say whatever they wish to say, but doesn’t meant to day that saying some things can’t be called ‘immoral’. What counts, then, as immoral speech? When Conway and Carver name people they would rape, they do so under the premise that, did they not do so, millions of people would die. Does that make their hypothetical actions moral – quite probably. But the rationale behind their choices is more problematic: ideas around creating empathy, or punishing, betray quite different intentions than ‘saving the world’. Even at a more molecular level, the very conversation materialises out of nothing. This could be another sign that David Ireland just wants to shock, of course, but it does suggest some deeper meaning of ‘context’ that takes into account not just the hypothetical circumstances of the scenario, but of the conversation itself.
The most interesting things Ulster American has to say are internal – or, at least, not entirely connected to the plot. How do we respond to this sort of content? When Carver says he would rape Margaret Thatcher to punish her, what does the tide of uproarious laughter say about the audience; about us? In what was a diverse crowd, who was continuously giggling and who had their mouths, agape, in shock? What do I, personally, feel about what should and should not be said – and, on top of that, what do I feel about what should and should not morally be said? What is the significance of the fact that with every despicable utterance, the audience grew more and more comfortable with the idea of laughing at things which, had they been said at the start of the play, would have caused gasps? Am I laughing because everyone else is laughing, or do I find this genuinely funny? If the latter, is that problematic, and why? These are all interesting questions, specific to the individual viewer, and supremely relevant to the current climate. I’m not sure that this play says anything remotely interesting about Ireland, or even aims to, but it does interrogate the concept of theatre. What is the role of theatre in society? Can it ever make a real-world impact? Can creators ever divorce themselves from their work – are despicable characters just an extension of despicable writers?
So here’s the deal. I said at the start of this review that controversy sells – and it sells for a reason. Ulster American is eighty minutes of audience provocation: eighty minutes of uncomfortable silences and uneasy laughter that begins with the line You ever use the n word? and ends in splattery violence. I can’t really tell if it says a lot, or says nothing – if David Ireland is a masterful writer, or a Tarantino and McDonagh obsessed fanboy without the skill to create a work on the level of his inspirations. And it’s certainly true that key plot points are reliant on a misunderstanding of social media. But one thing’s for sure, it’s one hell of a ride: you’ll gasp, you’ll squirm, and you’ll probably laugh quite a lot. Oh, and that last line, my god, it’s beautiful.