Talking to Harriet Gordon-Anderson as she walks to rehearsals at 8.30am for Belfast-born David Ireland’s hard-hitting play Ulster American is an invigorating experience. Despite the crackle of a mobile her voice conveys an energy and resoluteness that fits the challenging role of Ruth Davenport, a playwright from Northern Ireland, who engages in combat with an Oscar-winning American actor and an ambitious English director.
Gordon-Anderson is accustomed to challenges. Her last role was as the complex Prince of Denmark in Bell Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet for which she had to learn to fence. It took months, she said, and she discovered muscles she never knew she had. Eventually she came to enjoy it – the control it demanded and the necessity to remain always alert.
Her challenge in Ulster American was to master the complexities of the distinctive Northern Irish accent with its Ulster Scots influence. While Gordon-Anderson was thankful for the guidance of her dialect-coach, Linda Nicolls-Gidley, she spent many hours listening to podcasts and watching TV serials like Derry Girls created by Northern Irish writer, Lisa McGee.
As Gordon-Anderson says, Ireland’s darkly satirical Ulster American is “so right for our times”. As we watch the struggles of our own elected representatives to come to terms with a post #me-too environment, a play which reveals “the deep, monstrous hypocrisy” of men who while claiming to acknowledge the importance of women’s views at the same time shut down their voices, is devastatingly relevant.
Ruth, Gordon-Anderson, admits is “no saint”. She is polite, says Gordon-Anderson, “until she isn’t” and as the stakes rise, fights back with the modern weapons at her disposal. The actor feels deeply uncomfortable and troubled by what is revealed about the three characters when ambition and ego are threatened. Not only is there a deep disconnect between the men’s avowed feminist attitudes and their unconscious privilege but assumptions about national identity also come in for a savaging.
One of the functions of performance, Gordon-Anderson says, is to challenge the audience by provoking them to question themselves and society and David Ireland has a proven record in achieving provocation to “bone shaking proportions”. At the same time, when Gordon-Anderson first read the play she laughed out loud many times, and this is in part Ireland’s secret – a combination of somewhat guilty laughter and laying bare our most appalling behaviour.
Ulster American will open at the Seymour’s Reginald Theatre on May 13.