Stephen Rea: ‘I can’t imagine teams of loyalists rolling up to watch it’

Stephen Rea stars as a paranoid loyalist in ‘Cyprus Avenue’ at the Abbey

 

This is a safe place. Cyprus Avenue, a new play by the Belfast writer David Ireland, begins with gentle reassurance. “Here it’s okay to say anything you want to say,” a psychiatrist says. “About anything.” It takes Eric Miller, a taciturn Belfast loyalist in the grip of an extraordinary paranoid delusion, about 60 seconds to go too far.

The author of the play, the latest in a stream of outrageously funny and politically provocative works, has adopted the theatre as a place where you can say anything, rarely making it feel safe. Here, sunk in depression, Eric has peered into the face of his five-week-old granddaughter and discovered Gerry Adams. The politician? “The president of Sinn Féin, yes,” he replies. “It’s very unusual, yes.”

Ireland’s play, staged in a coproduction between the Abbey Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre, is many things: a political comedy, a psychological drama, a horror show. More precisely, it is a riveting identity crisis, one that even seems to consume the play itself. That may be why Stephen Rea, who plays Eric, can seem so divided. “I’ve never had so much fun,” he says, in a tone so comically morose that it’s as if all the fun in the world has just decided to phone in sick.

At 69 the celebrated actor has gamely settled into his forlorn exterior, one still versatile enough to serve simultaneously as the scheming Prince Vassily Kuragin in the BBC’s current War & Peace adaptation and the pleasantly dogged Inspector Bucket in its Dickensian.

When we meet, shortly after rehearsals, the warm saddlebags beneath Rea’s eyes are covered by neat half-moon glasses, and the wit he deploys is so dry it might count as a fire hazard. “I mean, it’s killing me to be doing it,” he says about Cyprus Avenue, “but I’d hate not to be doing it. It’s not that one ends up feeling sympathetic to the loyalist position, but you do understand that they are in a cul-de-sac, and one of some tragedy. The character is a tragic figure. In many ways they really don’t know who they are.”

This is clearly David Ireland’s beat. He grew up among working-class unionists in Belfast and later moved to Scotland to act. Flannery O’Connor once said that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures”. For similar reasons Ireland’s plays can be unapologetically extreme. Everything Between Us trapped two daughters of a murdered UDA member in the basement of a government building on the first day of an imagined truth and reconciliation commission. Another, Yes So I Said Yes was less subtle, ending with the ritual rape of a loyalist paramilitary while onlookers sang Amhrán na bhFiann.

“I think David has immense courage,” says Rea, who staged Ireland’s disturbing short play Half a Glass of Water in 2012 with Field Day. Ireland later approached Rea with a subversive suggestion. “He said to me, ‘I think it would be good fun to do a loyalist play at the Abbey in 2016.’ I don’t think it’s a loyalist play. It’s about loyalism. Too many plays [about the Troubles] are stuck in a realistic groove of balaclavas and socialists. Whereas he’s really into the mind of it.”

Surreal nightmares

Cyprus Avenue

“Without prejudice we’re nothing,” Eric says, obsessed with the threat of infiltration and eventual extinction. “If we don’t discriminate we don’t survive.” There are clear perils in making bigotry a scaffold for identity.

“If you define yourself in opposition to something it’s an absolutely hopeless way to live,” says Rea. “But I don’t know anybody who’s addressed it with such humour and such insight. And it’s one of the ways the theatre can actually move things on. I can’t imagine teams of loyalists rolling up to watch it. But it will move something on, there’s no question, because it is great theatre. I mean, we wouldn’t want to do it if it weren’t.”

As a performer Rea has used as much caution as ambition when deciding what work to pursue. Born to a working-class Protestant family with nationalist sympathies, Rea followed a degree in English at Queen’s University Belfast by training at the Abbey Theatre School, before relocating to London in the early 1970s. He gravitated towards experimental theatre, where he first encountered Sam Shepard, playing the lead in Shepard’s Geography of a Horse Dreamer in 1974. They have had a close friendship and working relationship ever since.

Like Shepard, several other playwrights have written specifically for Rea, and the actor has made them iconic roles. Brian Friel, with whom he founded Field Day in 1980, wrote Owen for him in Translations, Stewart Parker created the charismatically ineffectual Lenny Harrigan for him in Pentecost, and now David Ireland has given him Eric Miller, a character of such smothered comedy and saturnine tragedy it is hard to imagine him played by anyone else. “Well, he tells me he wrote it for me, yeah,” Rea says. “It’s not that I distrust that. I’m just wary of the responsibility. But it’s supposed to be done in my voice, that Northern voice.”

Actually, it is tempting to think that Ireland may be playing on Rea’s biography. When a line refers to the 1980s broadcasting ban, for which television interviews with Gerry Adams and other members of Sinn Féin had to be dubbed, some may recall that one of the actors who voiced him was Stephen Rea. “I wasn’t trying to embody Gerry Adams,” he says. Instead Rea was hoping to provide a conduit. The late Irish Times columnist Mary Holland suggested to him that the broadcasting ban “was preventing movement” and that Adams’s statements required nuance.

“It was a hugely courageous thing on her part,” says Rea, who lip-synced Adams’s lines just twice. “Mary said to me, ‘We might get into a bit of trouble for this.’ That, of course, confirmed that I had to do it.” He chuckles. Rea refrained from impersonation, though. “I spoke as clearly and as neutrally as possible.”

Paranoid fixation

Northern Ireland

Rea offers no opinion on Adams, but he agrees that it couldn’t have been anyone else. “It has to be that iconic – as you say, strange – symbol.” By the same token one feels it has to be Rea who plays the man so tormented by him, because he understands both the politics and the theatricality of the gesture. “It’s a very big play; it’s not far from the scale of Brecht,” he says, raising his hand in apology. (Rea has a low threshold for pretension.) “Or Shakespeare. It feels like Lear to me, the delusion. And the madness. The self-delusion is massive.”

Cyprus Avenue will open in Dublin and later transfer to London, but Rea would like to see it brought closer to home. “It ought to be seen in east Belfast,” he says. Rea can’t say how a loyalist audience might view the play; as shocking as it is comic, it could be a cathartic way to confront fears or it could be considered a mocking reductio ad absurdum. But delusions can be contagious if not addressed and defused. Even Rea isn’t impervious. “God,” he says as our conversation ends. “I hope it’s as good as I think it is.”

Cyprus Avenue previews at the Abbey Theatre from February 10th to 15th and then runs from February 16th to March 19th