A Rarity on Stage: Harrelson and Serkis!
“The only thing I want to read from a theatre critic is a suicide note!”
The Bechdel Test is a 1985 evaluation from Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip, a way of testing how many female characters are fully rounded and complete in their contribution to the storyline of movies. Why do we need to know this? It is a way of assessing the way women are portrayed in the media.
Jay Conway (Woody Harrelson) is a well known and Oscar winning Hollywood actor, who has been seduced by director Leigh Carver (Andy Serkis) to act in a play in London about an Ulsterman, set in Northern Island. Conway’s participation is perceived as crucial to the success of the West End play and director Carver’s first priority is to ensure Conway’s established participation.
So we see the director seeking to ingratiate himself and the play with the great actor who counts himself to be a feminist. Woody Harrelson’s character plays lip service to all fashionable political views in an extravagant and over the top delivery where it is obvious that he has no clue what he is talking about. David Ireland’s play is a satire based on misconceptions about identity as Jay Conway counts himself to be not just a feminist but also “Irish”.
It is a very physical performance from Harrelson, wearing baggy trousers that look like loose pyjama bottoms, doing handstands, and squatting in mid air with his legs akimbo. Serkis seems to be genuinely trying to hang on to Leigh’s integrity, impossible with the conflicting demands of actor and playwright but oiled with copious glasses of Bordeaux.
Complicating matters is the arrival of Ruth (Louisa Harland) the playwright, who comes from Northern Ireland and counts herself as British. Northern Ireland of course is in the United Kingdom not Great Britain but its residents can identify as British or Northern Irish or even Irish. This is probably rather too complicated for Jay’s brain to grasp. His identity issue is neatly skewered by Ruth when she investigates his claim to be Irish.
Jay has not understood that his role in the play is that of a North Irish Protestant and is more concerned with his character wearing an eyepatch which is not in the playscript. He accidentally drops eyepatches in 6 assorted colours. While Ruth and Jay pick up cudgels, Leigh is trying to protect his investment of this Oscar winning actor in his London West End production and Leigh finds himself in an impossible situation.
The set is the floor of a flat with sitting and dining areas and glimpses of the hall behind which allows one character to leave while the other two talk ostensibly alone. The debate will get heated and the action is directed by Renny Krupinski.
Before Ruth’s entrance, Jay has posed a question to Leigh, “Is it ever ok to rape someone?” Interestingly his interpretation of rape only includes raping women and girls. Later Jay asks Leigh, “Who would you rape if you had to, if your life or the life of a loved one depended on it?” This distasteful proposed abuse of women will momentarily stop the audience laughing and may colour for some their view of the play.
But that apart, I laughed and laughed at the ridiculous American, the oleaginous Englishman and the upbraiding British woman. What I don’t find funny is the cost of a ticket to see this show: good seats at £175, ranging down to £150 and further back at £135. Anything less was sold before opening. Riverside Studios went into administration in March this year with debts to utilities and from the redevelopment. I really enjoyed Ulster American but would I pay to go back? Not at those prices.
Written by David Ireland
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Director : Jeremy Herrin
Designer: Max Jones
Lighting Designer: Oliver Fenwick
Sound Designer: Emma Laxton
Fight Director: Renny Krupinski
Running Time: One hour 50 minutes without an interval
Booking to 28th January 2024
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Riverside Studios
on 13th December 2023