Ulster American | Auckland Arts Festival 2019

Reclining in the luxury of cheap red wine and diet coke while waiting for the imminent arrival of their playwright, a buttoned-up British director and a brash Irish-American Hollywood actor begin a conversation about rape.

It’s shocking, provocative and political – at least it’s supposed to be. But somehow the politics of identity, gender and placement/displacement are entangled in a warped bear-baiting episode that provides comedic routines which lack subtlety and substance.

David Ireland’s Ulster American is a sophisticated main stage work and the actors deliver polished performances. Leigh (Robert Jack) is an articulate but sycophant director, eager to maintain his pro-feminism and pro-minority stance while acquiescing to his obnoxious box-office star Jay (Darrell D’Silva). The latter, rocking a grey beard and old movie star charm, is convinced that his role in this production will facilitate some long-lost connection to his Irish roots and seems more intent on gaining an eye-patch than actually understanding the differences of Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Then there’s the woman. Between two men who seek to mould, mask and manipulate the female mind and body, it’s important to note that Ruth (Lucianne McEvoy) arrives late (literally because of a car accident) to the party – and as a result a substantial amount of time has been chewed up by the men in the room.

Delighted by the praise of Jay and thrilled at the possibility of meeting film director Quentin Tarantino her excitement only begins to dwindle when Leigh confesses the “uncomfortable” but “hypothetical” conversation he shared with the golden boy before she arrived.

Very quickly Ulster American switches gear as all three characters twist and turn to unravel what the play is actually about and why exactly they are gathered together – especially when all three are trading in their own versions of the truth.

Ruth, for example, despite both Leigh’s and Jay’s protestations and puzzlement, is committed to the notion that she is a British playwright writing about The Troubles. Leigh, on the other hand, desperate to be a champion of feminists is convinced the production explores the anxiety of a post-Brexit nation and that “Irish playwrights” are the next hot minority; Jay is so self-involved that his greatest goal continues to idealise the one-eyed pirate look.

All three performers are well matched in terms of energy and Gareth Nicholl’s direction is en pointe. The set and lighting design complement each other in neutral tones of whites, black and grays and the overall effects are satisfying. Yet despite having consistently high production values the ending seems contrived and cheap.

Ulster American is a production geared for laughs, over-the-top oohs-and-aahs and while the satire strikes a few chords, ultimately the politics come across – at least in 2019 – as juvenile and messy.