David Ireland’s provocative drama on unionism and psychosis, Cyprus Avenue, returns to the Royal Court. Beware of potential triggers, just in case. Annabel Mellor reviews:

You might have seen that playwright David Ireland has been caught up in an online scuffle about trigger warnings for plays. He doesn’t like them, essentially because he thinks they are spoiler alerts. Arguably, a prospective audience member should, by default, mentally add trigger warnings to all of Ireland’s plays. That’s certainly the case with Cyprus Avenue, his 2016 smash hit which has just returned to the Royal Court for a limited run.

Chris Corrigan & Stephen Rea (image courtesy of Helen Murray)

Stephen Rea reprises his role as Eric Miller, the cantankerous Belfast unionist who becomes convinced that his newborn baby granddaughter is actually Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams in disguise, come to invade his Ulster loyalist household. Confronted by this perceived threat to his home and identity, Eric experiences an existential crisis as part of a deeply disturbing psychotic episode.

Cyprus Avenue is a portrait of absurd fanaticism taken to extremes. Agonising over the state of loyalism in his own family and fearful of the future, Eric retreats into the past, seeking solace in songs and simpler times. When his rhetoric is challenged, he chooses to follow his demented beliefs over all else, with horrific consequences.

Cyprus Avenue Royal Court

Amy Molloy & Stephen Rea (image courtesy of Helen Murray)

Rea is absolutely sublime, bringing such depth, emotion and effortless hilarity to the character that it’s hard to imagine any other actor in the role. He imbues every line of Ireland’s text with wit and lyricism. Particular highlights include his sollipsising on British heritage and identity, and a comedic ten min​ute monologue about the dilemma of entering an Irish bar and the revelations that lie inside.

He is well supported by Ronke Adékoluejo as calmly empathetic clinical psychologist Bridget, who provides a much-needed counterbalance to her patient’s loquacious hysteria. Chris Corrigan is hugely entertaining as loyalist paramilitary Slim, whose pompous and elaborate cursing of Catholic Irish Republicans whips Eric into an even greater fervour. Amy Molloy and Andrea Irvine channel exasperation and fast-dwindling sympathy as Eric’s daughter and wife respectively, their ripostes turning coldly to horror as the play nears its climax.

Stephen Rea & Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo (image courtesy of Ros Kavanagh)

There are staggeringly funny moments peppered throughout Vicky Featherstone’s stirring, high-impact production, and she deftly balances Cyprus Avenue’s belly laugh-inducing sequences with its disturbing scenes of violence and cruelty. Her direction sees Rea manage these tonal shifts masterfully; the play’s brutal moments are grimly shocking.

Such unflinching explorations of national identity, and the lengths people will go to in order defend it, have never felt so urgent. Our political climate appears hell-bent on pretending that the island of Ireland’s troubles are all in the past. Cyprus Avenue is a timely reminder that the repercussions of such deep and bitter conflicts live long in the collective memory and do not take kindly to being ignored.

★★★★☆

Cyprus Avenue plays at the Royal Court until 23 March 2019. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the venue website.