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Theatre review: Ulster American, Ensemble Theatre

Feminism, #MeToo, toxic masculinity, the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ and the theatre itself are dissected in this provocative work.
Ulster American. Three actors on a stage set of a loft type apartment. A woman in a short sleeved lilac jumper sits downstage. Behind her centre stage is a bearded man all in black with a baseball cap backwards and an Oscar in his outstretched hand; he is shouting. A third balding man with glasses stands on the right behind a tan leather couch clasping his hands and watching the man in the centre.

A term first coined by sexual assault survivor and activist Tarana Burke in 2006, “MeToo” was brought into high relief more than a decade later, when sexual abuse allegations were levelled against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein. 

US actress Alyssa Milano brought the term to the mainstream when she tweeted in 2017: ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.’ 

The hashtag #MeToo instantly went viral, becoming a catchcry and a social movement.  

This was the environment in which Ulster American was born. First staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2018, David Ireland’s play tackles female agency (or lack thereof) in the entertainment industry and asks broader questions about the way women – especially clever, opinionated women – are treated by society at large.   

Up-and-coming playwright Ruth Davenport (played by Harriet Gordon-Anderson) is the author of the unflinching historical drama called Shrapnel, about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. She secures esteemed theatre director Leigh Carver (Brian Meegan) and Oscar-winning Hollywood star Jay Conway (Jeremy Waters) to help bring her play to life; we meet the trio as they’re about to start rehearsals. 

The two men’s vehement claims to be allies and feminists are soon brought into question. Endless mansplaining and talk of reworking the script give the lie to their self-proclaimed progressive credentials and Ruth finds herself sidelined on her own project. 

The men’s staggering hypocrisy and Ruth’s biting ripostes provide fertile comedic ground for this dark satirical comedy, where the darkness turns pitch black when Leigh and Jay shoot the breeze over whether it’s ever morally acceptable to rape someone.  

Meegan and Waters play the gross misogyny to great effect, with the pair highly convincing in their depiction of male collusion and toxic masculinity. Gordon-Anderson, meanwhile, is perfect as the razor-sharp playwright who ultimately exacts revenge of the most definitive kind.  

At the risk of being hypercritical, if there’s any criticism to be made of the acting, it’s a minor one relating to the cast’s accents. While Meegan’s English theatre luvvie accent is flawless throughout, there are a couple of fleeting slip-ups in Waters’ West Coast Hollywood drawl and Gordon-Anderson’s Northern Irish articulation (admittedly one of the most distinctive, nuanced accents in the English-speaking world). 

Overall, though, all three actors – guided by dialect coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley – believably inhabit their characters’ ethnicities.   

Also effective is the London loft apartment of the fictitious director, with set and lighting designer Veronique Benett fashioning an appropriate, versatile space in which to showcase the action. No mean feat considering the stage is doing double duty, concurrently hosting a run of Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland. 

Ultimately, cast and crew have done justice to Ireland’s play, which was previously staged with the same trio of actors by the Outhouse Theatre Co in 2021 and 2022 at the Seymour Centre and Riverside Theatres, Parramatta.  

Read: Exhibition review: The same crowd never gathers twice, Buxton Contemporary

While the #MeToo movement has perhaps passed its heyday, Ulster American remains relevant as ever – corpulent, cigar-smoking Weinstein having two rape convictions overturned just last month and gender-based violence still deploringly common in Australia and globally.  

 
Ulster American by David Ireland 
Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli NSW
Director: Shane Anthony
 
Set and Lighting Designer: Veronique Benett
Costume Designer: Claudia Kryszkiewicz
 
Sound Designer: Mary Rapp
 
Dialect Coach: Linda Nicholls-Gidley
 
Fight Director: Tim Dashwood
 
Stage Manager: Saz Watson
 
Assistant Stage Manager: Christopher Starnawski

Costume Supervisor: Renata Beslik 
Cast: Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Brian Meegan, Jeremy Waters 
Tickets: $25-$88 

Ulster American will be performed until 8 June 2024. 

Peter Hackney is an Australian-Montenegrin writer and editor who lives on Dharug and Gundungurra land in Western Sydney - home to one of Australia’s most diverse and dynamic arts scenes. He has a penchant for Australian theatre but is a lover of the arts in all its forms. A keen ‘Indonesianist’, Peter is a frequent traveller to Indonesia and is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia.   Muck Rack: https://muckrack.com/peterhackney  Facebook https://www.facebook.com/peterhackney  Twitter/X: twitter.com/peterhackney