In his portrayal of unsettling characters, Stephen Rea certainly takes it to a whole new level in David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue. If his role in Dennis Kelly’s ultra-violent TV series Utopia was uncomfortable viewing, then Stephen Rea’s performance in the Royal Court and Abbey Theatre production – available digitally for a month – is something else.
Rea plays Eric Miller, a unionist from Belfast who, experiencing a psychotic episode, believes his baby granddaughter is Gerry Adams. The five-week-old child, named Mary-May, is seen by Eric as an attack on his national identity, and so decides to fight back.
In what becomes a struggle with the past and present, Rea acts with impressive attention-to-detail. We see it in his body language as he recites sharp dialogue on an expansive, stripped-back set which gives his performance room to breathe. One arm is placed in the pocket of his jacket, the other outstretched, gesturing wildly. If one was to project meaning onto the minuscule – much like Eric himself – then it’s almost as if this stance represents his conflict: the past as a form of comfort; the now a scary present which he is forced to confront.
While supporting cast members such as Ronke Adekoluejo (as therapist Bridget), Andrea Irvine (as wife Bernie) and Amy Molloy (as daughter Julie) give solid performances, their characters are more interesting to watch for their reactions to Eric’s comments and foreshadowing as opposed to their personalities. In fact, in later scenes, it’s Julie who reveals the deepest parts of his psyche, rather than the therapist, who is more a voice of reason. As the play develops, the family’s concern and horror is especially impactful, by establishing a tone which is jet-black and volatile.
Though it’s worth noting that Cyprus Avenue also has moments where it can be surprisingly funny, too, although most of the humour is as shocking and ridiculous as Eric’s narrative. It’s a curious and precarious balance expertly executed by Rea in a way which, at times, feels reminiscent of a Martin McDonagh play. Yet make no mistake, this is no Lieutenant of Inishmore – this is way more disturbing.
Cyprus Avenue first played at the Royal Court in April 2016, before returning in 2019. It was adapted for BBC Four in September in the same year. The show is available to view online internationally, with English captions, until 26 April.
Production Images: Ros Kavanagh.