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Ensemble Theatre: Ulster American - Review by Faith Jessel

David Ireland's ‘‘Ulster American’ is a masterclass in searing satire that slays in every sense of the word. 


A fiery collision between an Irish playwright, an American actor, and a British director over the course of a single evening quickly becomes a chaotic scramble for dominance, exposing bruised egos, patriarchy and the blurred nature of personal and political beliefs. Under the strong hand of director  Shane Anthony, we are dared to dissect the toxic dynamics of power, entitlement, and abuse. It's a meaty zeitgeist to digest. But there's a delightful twist! The Hollywood sausage machine manages to inadvertently reinforce these imbalances, while championing itself as a beacon of social justice and enlightenment. 





The list of potential trigger warnings are almost as lengthy as this power-packed one-act play. Ireland’s dialogue is as relentlessly ruthless as it is real in its ridiculousness. A pressure cooker packed with razor-sharp wit, unapologetic candour and warped arguments, eventually released in a shockingly riotous and climactic explosion. If the irony is not delivered with precision, it runs the risk of alienating audiences by hitting too close to the bone.





Fortunately, this production knows exactly how to rip the proverbial piss that Aussies do so well. It's phenomenally funny in its blazing hypocrisy. The black humour allows us to be one step removed and laugh at the insidious self absorption and awful examples of everything wrong with men in power and society in general. There was much squirming in seats, many groans of guilty gobsmacked laughter and a shared recognition of the pretence of ludicrously modern woke culture. 


Jeremy Waters, Brian Meegan and  Harriet Gordon-Anderson are a triumvirate of potent synergy, delivering compelling performances of deeply flawed characters that transcend mere shock value by delving into the depths of the monster's psychosis. They are incredibly funny to boot. The power dynamics at play are truly fascinating.


Waters knows when to put his foot on the accelerator with no shortage of adrenaline and intensity. He seamlessly maintains the comedic flow without skipping a beat in portraying Jay, a deified Oscar winner deep within the throes of unchecked malignant narcissism. Waters delivered every line to simultaneously amuse and drain the energy out of the room with meaningless platitudes. When the mask of insatiable self-deception comes off, we see his hatred, instilled by a deeply cold stare, aimed at those who dare to question the perfection of his reflection. It's a chilling moment that foreshadows. 


Brian Meegan's impressive portrait of Leigh was a revelation in his marvellous performance as a formidable expert of cunning and spin. Leigh is the ultimate 'Yes Man',  as Jay's director and loyal enabler. His masterful use of microexpressions and perfectly timed beats during the opening scene, set the comedic tone for the night. This gave the audience moments to grasp the absurdity and brace for the impact of his response, which never disappointed. 


Harriet Gordon-Anderson's performance of Ruth is far less caricatured and more subtly nuanced because like all women who have faced embedded sexism and misogyny, she's learned to be the sole advocate and voice of reason and truth. With the audience rallying behind her, Gordon-Anderson doesn't hold back, injecting Ruth with fierce gusto and fearlessness, shooting down the combined forces of Jay and Leigh with a deadly fact or pointed observation in the face of being constantly talked over, talked at and told what to think. The defining moment when she must decide whether to yield to the urge of grieving or to stand strong in her fight reveals a terrible conundrum and a juggernaut of strength.





This play is an entertaining series of escalating conflicts covering Feminism, the Troubles, sexual assault, disagreements over the script and politics, Irish nationalism vs Ulster unionism, Brexit -  and that’s not all of it. Ultimately, it is a scathing indictment of the abuse of power and the complicity that enables it, leaving us with the questions; Are the powers that be in the media world responsible for shaping social views and issues, or merely reflecting them? What part do we play?

 

We need theatre like this to shake us from our smug apathy. To provide a safe conduit for our rage and disgust while laughing uproariously at the horror of disempowerment. We need stories that don't hesitate to cut the crap and expose the ironic traps of hollow political correctness. Sometimes, throwing it out the window can be far more effective and much more fun. ‘Ulster American’ presents this in spades and is a rip roaring homage to women who have fought the fight like Ruth. Just don't call her Irish. She’s a proud Brit. More power to her.

 

‘Ulster American’ plays at the Ensemble Theatre from 13 May 08 Jun 


Photos provided by Prudence Upton

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