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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Arifa Akbar

Ulster American review – Woody Harrelson and Andy Serkis perfectly awful in anarchic comedy

The ridiculous reigns over the dangerous … Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson in Ulster American.
The ridiculous reigns over the dangerous … Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson in Ulster American. Photograph: Johan Persson

Two white men in show business are shooting the breeze. “You ever use the N-word?” the Hollywood actor asks the British director. Then he raises the stakes with a follow-up question, hypothetical of course. Is it ever morally acceptable to rape someone?

The actor, Jay (Woody Harrelson), and the director, Leigh (Andy Serkis), are not in a Mamet-esque studio backroom but a tasteful British lounge, collaborating on a play about the Troubles by a young playwright, Ruth (Louisa Harland). Both are knuckle-draggers parading as progressives.

Jay, a big name star, is more evidently a bigot. The self-proclaimed feminist’s misuse of PC terminology makes him sounds like a latter-day Mrs Malaprop. Leigh is mealy mouthed, sneakily complicit and all the more appalling for it. When Ruth makes an entrance, their words come back to bite them.

David Ireland’s 2018 no-holds-barred black comedy comes with the too emphatic post #MeToo message that behind every self-proclaimed male feminist and seemingly evolved liberal luvvie lies a monster. The more serious point is that gross misogyny needs male complicity in order to function, and so requires men to be brave enough to call it out.

Woody Harrelson, Louisa Harland and Andy Serkis in Ulster American.
Grows more absurd … Woody Harrelson, Louisa Harland and Andy Serkis in Ulster American. Photograph: Johan Persson

Harrelson, making a return to the UK stage after almost two decades, is thrillingly awful as Jay, with his hip thrusts, 12-steps homilies and show-off handstands. Serkis is just as adept at playing an apparently reasonable man who is at least as vile as Jay. Ruth is their match with her fixed smile and casual shrugs that give little away – Harland is excellent at projecting faux joshing which builds to contained anger and quiet menace.

Directed by Jeremy Herrin, the best and most delicious dark comedy comes in the earlier scenes when it is pure, uproarious satire and these men are exposed as buffoons. They are laugh-out-loud funny one minute, skin crawling the next. But as satire gives way to farce, the plot becomes more absurd, the dialogue circular, the characters flattened to cartoon monstrousness.

Ruth’s play requires Jay to act the part of a Belfast loyalist though he only wants to play the cliche of a romanticised, eyepatch-wearing, Irish villain. But the questions raised around identity, authenticity and ownership in art become lost amid the ever more frenetic farce, with too many themes stuffed into a 90-minute production that overshoots itself.

When the violence erupts in the final moments, there is spurting blood but the ridiculous reigns over anything more dangerous and it is not nearly as visceral, or horrifying, as the climax of David Mamet’s Oleanna. The character development becomes hamstrung by the play’s limitations, with all three apoplectically overacting by the end. But the performances far outshine the play and are reason enough to see this imperfect, anarchic production.

• At Riverside Studios, London, until 28 January

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