Woody Harrelson and Andy Serkis in Ulster American – review

Harrelson, Serkis & Harland shine in Ireland satire

★★★★

Woody Harrelson, Louisa Harland and Andy Serkis group for a selfie in a scene from Ulster American at the Riverside Studios in London December 2023.
Woody Harrelson, Louisa Harland & Andy Serkis in Ulster American. Photo: Johan Persson/

A big name from Hollywood has come to London to star in a stage play. That’s the basic plot of Ulster American by David Ireland. However, it so happens that two big names from Hollywood really have come to London to star in this particular stage play. And how lucky we are to be able to see the wonderful Woody Harrelson and Andy Serkis on the Riverside Studios stage.

Mr Harrelson is the actor Jay and Mr Serkis plays Leigh, the director of the play. The two men are due to meet with the playwright the night before rehearsals begin. The venue is the director’s living room, a meticulous naturalistic set from Max Jones. They are playing a cat and mouse game, the rodent being Leigh. He thinks the coup of securing an Oscar-winning Hollywood actor will propel him to the artistic directorship of the National Theatre, so he doesn’t want to upset his star. Hence he pussy foots around Jay, panders to his outlandish opinions and eccentric behaviour.
All the while, Jay swaggers and poses and mansplains. Woody Harrelson is superb in this role. He has an easy film star smile and a physical dominance that especially manifests itself when he crouches in what could be a yoga position but makes him appear like an alpha male gorilla. He lopes like a menacing ape while Andy Serkis scuttles like a demented crab.
Jay is a caricature of the kind of actor whom stardom has turned into a spoilt child, and whose every whim and fancy is indulged. He is convinced the Bechdel test was invented by a man; he asks whether white people should ‘reclaim’ the N-word.
The most disturbing moment of this early encounter is when Jay asks Leigh who he would rape if forced to do so at gunpoint. It is shocking but amusing that Jay is so crass that he could even ask the question, but the funniest aspect is Andy Serkis’s reaction. His shocked expressions, squirming postures and desperate grabbing for a drink are a joy to watch.
Even so, is rape a subject for humour? You feel that, while David Ireland is exposing the hypocrisy of these two self-centered men who pretend to have feminist credentials in order to maintain their power, he is also jabbing his finger at us the audience as if to say why are you laughing at this?
He intends a parallel between these white males’ behaviour towards women and the British attitude to the Northern Irish, past and present. So, we the audience’s hypocrisy is being tested.
When Ruth the playwright arrives, tension is already high. And there are few directors as good Jeremy Herrin at signalling antagonistic feelings between characters, as we’ve seen recently in Best Of Enemies and A Mirror.
Played by Louisa Harland in a powerful performance, Ruth is thrilled her play has been chosen by this great actor. Her smile soon fades when she realises the true character of these men.
Straightaway , she reveals her steel when, despite her being introduced by Leigh as being Irish, she insists that, as someone from Northern Ireland, she is British.
Matters are made worse when the Irish American actor who thinks he will be playing a member of the IRA discovers that his character is a psychopathic Ulster Unionist who wants to kill catholics.
She will not change her script to accommodate him. Both men reveal their true colours as they abandon their previous pretension that they want to reveal artistic truth, by ignoring the truth of her play and trying to rewrite it.
Before long, verbal abuse becomes physical, and there is an hilarious chase around the room and through doors that reminds us of Jeremy Herrin’s skill as a director of farce that was seen in his production of Noises Off.
Some of the comedy dialogue is heavy handed, sometimes Woody Harrelson clowns a little too much, and the violent ending doesn’t have the smooth inevitability of a Martin McDonagh play, (which Ulster American resembles) but overall the effect is equivalent to a theatrical stun gun.
The message seems to be: ‘Don’t be surprised if your bad behaviour whether towards women, the Irish or anyone, comes back to poke you in the eye’.

The Ulster American can be seen At Riverside Studios intil 27 January 2024.

Paul received a review ticket from the producer.