Review: Ulster American


by Mike Matthaiakis

Ulster American” returns to the stage with a stellar cast featuring Woody Harrelson, Andy Serkis, and Louisa Harland, delivering a play that is both brilliant and infuriating. Playwright David Ireland’s scabrous satire revolves around Jay (Harrelson), a huge American star set to star in a play by Northern Irish writer Ruth, directed by Leigh (Serkis).

The play excels at skewering the incomprehension of Northern Ireland by both the English and Americans. Harrelson’s Jay, an Irish American, assumes the play is about Irish resistance to the British, only to be dumbfounded when Ruth clarifies that his Northern Irish character is British. Leigh, played by Serkis, attempts to navigate the delicate situation, highlighting the characters’ struggles with cultural identity.

Director Jamie Lloyd’s production is beautifully weighted, with the cast delving into the material with precision. Harrelson shines as Jay, a man shielded by stardom from knowledge of the world and social norms, providing comedic moments as he processes new information. Serkis delivers a great performance as Leigh, a pathological people pleaser navigating moral complexities to keep Jay on board. Harland holds her own as Ruth, displaying a shift from bubbly excitement to intransigence in the face of Jay’s demands.

However, the play’s reliance on rape jokes remains a point of contention. Jay’s uncomfortable question to Leigh about which famous person he’d rape if given the choice, and Leigh’s eventual response, leads to consequences that bite them horribly. While Ireland may aim to expose the hypocrisy of liberal men behind closed doors, the use of rape as a comedic element raises concerns about shock value and the audience’s response.

“Ulster American” seems to intentionally offend, with Ireland’s approach feeling somewhat edgelord. The play touches on taboo subjects, but the intention to provoke laughter from uncomfortable situations raises ethical questions. The offensive nature of the play may solidify Ireland’s status as a cult artist, but it leaves lingering discomfort, even as the cast, including the affable Woody Harrelson, navigates through the challenging material.

Ulster American, until 28 January at Riverside Studios