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Ulster American - Ensemble Theatre (NSW)

Written by David Ireland. Directed by Shane Anthony.


Delivered by three cohesive performers, the flawed characters in this production offer resonating commentary on our current social climate, but ultimately fails to provide anything meaningful to take away


Reviewed by Claira Prider

Ensemble Theatre

Season 13 May – 8 June 2024


First staging the work at the Seymour Centre in 2021, Outhouse Theatre Company has joined forces with Ensemble Theatre to bring Ulster American, an 80-minute, gruesome black-comedy satire back to Sydney. After a successful debut at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, David Ireland’s play about systemic misogyny, #metoo and Brexit has been regularly performed around the globe since. Centring around three characters in the theatre world, Ulster American sees a clash of personal and political beliefs and morals, as an American actor, an English theatre director and Northern Irish playwright prepare to start rehearsing their show. The work presents three extremely flawed and unlikeable theatre makers who are willing to go to any lengths to achieve their goals.




Photos by Prudence Upton


Set in director Leigh’s (Brian Meegan) contemporary London apartment living room, the opening scenes see Jay (Jeremy Waters), the headlining actor who’s been employed to star in the production, arrive to meet with the director and playwright ahead of rehearsals starting the next day. Before the playwright, Ruth (Harriet Gordon-Anderson) arrives, their true intentions quickly become apparent; Leigh has taken on this play not because he believes in the work, but because he hopes that platforming a female playwright and acquiring a Hollywood star will fast track him to securing him the prestigious title of Director of the National Theatre.


Oscar-winning actor Jay has misunderstood the political context of the role however, regardless he’s confident he can reshape the role into exactly what he wants – he’s an Oscar winning superstar after all. Late to show up and shaken by the news that her mother has been in a horrible car accident, Ruth’s arrival also comes with her unapologetic political beliefs and severe aversion to Jay’s differing values and patronising mansplaining. Tensions arise as confusion comes to light around the texts’ political themes and differing personal bias; a brutal and disturbing evening of social, cultural, and political disasters ensue.


Veronique Bennett’s apartment-loft set and lighting design is sleek and modern, and doubles as the set for Ensemble Theatre’s play Switzerland which is running concurrently. Shane Anthony's direction in the open configuration of the set angles the performers outwards in a way that gives the audience uninterrupted connection from all three sides of the seating, while maintaining a cohesive, and cosy feel. Claudia Kryszkiwicz’s costuming meanwhile, is informative of the different cultural and class systems between America, Britain and Ireland.


Jeremy Waters is viscerally repulsive as the egotistical, highly opinionated Jay. Blinded by his own ignorance and disconnected from reality by his stardom, Waters’ characterisation of Jay embodies a hilariously comprehensive commitment to douchebag-isms. Brian Meegan shows great understanding in his characters' ability to mould his morals to suit the situation he's in. His performance in the role of Leigh takes us on a believable journey from likeable peacekeeper to untrustworthy colleague with the perfect dose of British pomp. Harriet Gordon-Anderson brings a bright and fast paced energy to the role of Ruth, portraying the politically charged character as a stubborn, passionate, layered and gritty woman. Together they create a very tight cohort, their comedic timing is delivered with precision and perfection that facilitates polished ensemble chemistry.


As the problem of gender-based violence has been in the spotlight in Australia, the content of the piece is painfully relevant. The men in the play exemplify the disengaged attitude of hollow promises and inaction that leave so many women feeling weary of what is performative and what is real allyship. The text combines witty and self-aware commentary (such as the two self-proclaimed, woke, feminist men discussing how certain they both are that they Bechdel-test is the work of a man) with literal rape jokes.


The theatre is an appropriate place to address taboo subjects such as rape, but showing scene after scene of two men joking about raping women felt particularly distasteful, I personally wish there’d been explicit content warnings in the advertising and synopsis. The writing is a send up of the hypocrisy and lack of change we’ve seen since the #metoo movement, however, Ireland's piece disappointingly misses the opportunity to explore such themes in a way that many may find profoundly empowering within the current cultural climate.

 

CREATIVES 

Playwright David Ireland

Director Shane Anthony

Set & Lighting Designer Veronique Benett

Costume Designer Claudia Kryszkiewicz

Sound Designer Mary Rapp

Dialect Coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley

Fight Director Tim Dashwood

Stage Manager Saz Watson

Assistant Stage Manager Christopher Starnawski

Costume Supervisor Renata Beslik


 

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