Ulster American

By David Ireland. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Shane Anthony. 13 May – 8 June 2024

Reviewed May 17, 2024*

Photo : Prudence Upton

The lights snap up on to find Jeremy Waters in the middle of a voluble dissertation about the use of the “N… word”. It’s one of the many “Look at me! See how politically correct I am!” topics his character Jay, an acclaimed American actor, belches forth in his effort to convince theatre director, Leigh (Brian Meegan) that he is pro-feminist, anti-misogynist, forward-thinking, talented, intelligent.

Jay is in England to appear in a new play by Irish playwright, Ruth. While they await her arrival from Belfast, he is determined to prove himself as a thinking actor, unprejudiced and a resolute member of AA (he checks in with his AA sponsor regularly).

Photo : Prudence Upton

Leigh, a British director anxious to direct at the National, finds it all a little overwhelming. Meegan shows this in silent expressive asides, tentative pauses and replies from trembling, reticent lips. The character that he creates is cautious, chary. Though bewildered and indeed a little disturbed by Jay, he needs him for the play, needs his fame and talent – so he plays along, listening, nodding, agreeing quietly but diffident, hesitant.

There is humour in that hesitance; and black humour in some of Jay’s assertions and suggestions. Playwright David Ireland has set Jay up as the epitome of a man brought up in a patriarchal society, rising to fame in the chauvinistic, dog-eat-dog movie industry, but finding himself having to appear aware and sensitive in a “new” contemporary inclusive society.

Waters skilfully portrays that brittle, over-confident, assertive persona and the fragile insecurity of fame that he tries to cover. He is loud, forceful, just a bit scary, but seemingly sincere. He struts, poses, gestures, articulating forcefully one minute, wheedling charmingly the next.

Photo : Prudence Upton

The conversation becomes increasingly touchy, comically improbable and confrontational until they are both provoked into shocking admissions that it is best not to repeat!

When Ruth ,played by Harriet Gordon-Anderson, arrives she is tired and agitated. She has left her mother in hospital in Belfast following an argument resulting in a car accent on their way to the airport. Gordon-Anderson plays down her concern, intent on discussing the play. But while Jay checks in by phone with his AA sponsor, Leigh stupidly tells Ruth about Jay’s afore-mentioned admission.


Photo : Prudence Upton

ay’s fame, his praise for her play and his mention of it to Tarantino, impresses Ruth who basks in his praise until he begins to make suggestions about changes in the play, including his character wearing an eye patch. That, and his awful Northern Irish accent, infuriate Ruth and she comes into her own.

It was interesting to watch Gordon-Anderson make that change. A pause, a look, a straightening of the shoulders – and suddenly she was someone stronger, fiercer, perceptive. This Ruth wasn’t going to be railroaded. She would protect her work and fight against any change especially by someone as insensitive as the Jay that Leigh had revealed to her.

When she throws his crude admission at him, all hell breaks loose. Jay is furious with Leigh. Leigh is upset with Ruth. Ruth is shocked and aghast at both of them. Here the play becomes even more improbable, in fact becomes the wild, black, shock-making Irish comedy that we love.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Black comedy that reveals social flaws and faults in all their vivid, blue lividity.

David Ireland writes masterfully. His work demands clear, tight direction of characters and situations that challenge. Shane Anthony and this very strong, intrepid cast meet those demands in a fine production that, while it entertains almost uproariously, it also, as Anthony points out, “confronts us with uncomfortable truths” that don’t seem to be lessening despite #MeToo, Chanel Contos’ Teach us Consent and the continuous brutal domestic abuse.

The Ensemble brings this Outhouse Theatre Company’s 2021 production back to Sydney at a time that is, unfortunately, heartbreakingly appropriate.

*Opening Night