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'Ulster American' at Riverside Studios: An Uncomfortable Masterpiece

Content warning: the play contains references to suicide, sexual assault, racism and misogyny. Hebe Hancock considers these themes in the play throughout this review.


★★★★

‘The only thing I want to read from a theatre critic is a suicide note’, Harrelson’s character exclaims. Unflinchingly confrontational, but perhaps slightly too brash, Ulster American delivers an accurate portrayal of performative progressivism. 


Jeremy Herrin’s portrayal of 2018 black comedy Ulster American sees Woody Harrelson’s return to the stage, alongside BAFTA and Emmy winner Andy Serkis, and Derry Girls’ own Louisa Harland. The trio play an Oscar-winning American actor, an English director and a Northern Irish playwright, all eager to succeed. The story unfolds as Leigh (Serkis) and Jay (Harrelson) prepare to meet with writer Ruth (Harland), in order to discuss a play which holds the capability to transform each of their careers. But, as their misalignment becomes apparent, the evening teeters on the brink of chaos. Misogyny, sexual violence, identity politics, even cancel culture – nothing is off limits. 


Woody Harrelson, Louisa Harland and Andy Serkis in 'Ulster American'. Photo by Johan Persson.

Against the backdrop of an impeccably middle-class living room, the self absorbed nature of Harrelson’s character Jay is immediately laid bare. Even before a single line is spoken, we find him alone on stage, preparing for the meeting and indulging in self-admiration before a fourth-wall mirror. His first line sets the tone for the rest of the play: "Is it ever ok for a white man to say the N-word?", shortly followed by "Is it ever morally acceptable to rape someone?" and "Who would you rape if Jesus was holding a gun to your head?". Spoiler alert – Jay chooses Princess Diana, while Leigh eventually opts for Margaret Thatcher. This is exactly the kind of shocking discussion which Ulster American contains; at every turn, the men fluff each other’s egos, trying to stake their claim to being the better feminist, while simultaneously tearing women down. 

 

A comically charged discussion revolving around the Bechdel test, with Jay adamantly refusing to acknowledge that Bechdel is a woman, flawlessly underscores his performative feminism. And then, in comes an actual woman – an intelligent, outspoken, and unwavering one. Despite earlier asserting a profound understanding and appreciation for women, the duo visibly grapple with her assertive nature, even stooping to criticise her when she’s out of earshot. During a particularly heated moment of the play, Ruth threatens to ruin their careers with a detrimentally captioned selfie, in an accurate depiction of society’s ‘cancel culture’.

 

Harrelson himself is no stranger to controversy. After hosting Saturday Night Live last year, he was reprimanded for his comments on COVID conspiracies after he joked about drug cartels buying up the media and politicians, suggesting that the pandemic was manufactured to make the world dependent on their product. Of course, Harrelson protested that this was merely satirical. His performance in Ulster American reminds us that Hollywood is full of real-life Jays, filled with Trump-like Americans whose stardom has shielded them from knowledge of the world and social norms. Serkis is hugely convincing too, playing up to both Ruth and Jay, constantly pulling the "you’re being unreasonable" card. He is the very picture of an uncomfortable middle-class man, trying too hard to seem 'woke'. Derry Girl star Louisa Harland holds her own as the Northern Irish Ruth, refusing to be seen as Irish, and provides many elements of comedic relief in what is an unflinchingly confrontational show. 


Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson in 'Ulster American'. Photo by Johan Persson.

Humour seamlessly transforms into shock during the play’s startling climax, where a heated discussion rapidly escalates into violence. Upon entering the theatre and settling into your seat, signs boldly announce the presence of explicit language and graphic violence. Naively, I questioned the feasibility of such intensity in a play. However, my curiosity found its answer before me, as Ruth bludgeons both Leigh and Jay over the head with an Oscar, in a final scene which spills enough blood to satisfy even Tarantino. 

 

The relentless stream of sexual assault jokes perhaps makes it a little challenging to fully immerse oneself into the play. Of course, all their comments comes back to bite them in a dramatic twist, but there’s an unsettling edge to it all. Perhaps that’s the intended effect – a reminder that such discussions should never be comfortable. Yet, there’s a disquieting feeling when the audience obediently chuckles at these dark gags. Feminism, the Troubles, sexual assault, disagreements over the script and politics, Irish nationalism vs Ulster unionism, Brexit – it’s a lot to take in at once. 

 

Ultimately, while the play certainly does venture into unapologetic crassness, its overall equilibrium of humour and darkness is generally well-received. Ulster American exposes the ugliness of human behaviour, in an all-star satire that spirals into utter chaos. 

 

 

Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.

 

 

 

 


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