Theatre after #MeToo – David Whiteley on Ulster American

A female writer, an A-List actor and an ambitious West End director are sitting in a room. What could possibly go wrong?

David Ireland’s Ulster American is a satirical commentary on show business after the #MeToo movement, highlighting huge issues such as modern politics, gender, and the power of Hollywood. The play won the Best of Edinburgh Award and Scotsman Fringe First, and was one of the most talked about plays at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe festival.

Red Stitch’s upcoming production of Ulster American features a cast of Steve Bastoni (A View From The Bridge, Police Rescue) and Red Stitch ensemble members Sarah Sutherland (The Realistic Joneses, That Face) and David Whiteley (The Doctor Blake Mysteries, The Wrong Girl). Directed by Brett Cousins, this award winning black comedy is not for the faint at heart.

David Whiteley

A founding member of the company, David Whiteley is no stranger to the Red Stitch stage. He has appeared in many of their productions, including the award winning Red Sky Morning by Tom Holloway, Howie The Rookie by Mark O’Rowe, and Some Voices by Joe Penhall. He has performed in various other stage shows, and worked as a professional voiceover artist for over 20 years. David can also be seen on film and TV shows, with credits including Killer Elite, Crawlspace, City Homicide and The Man From Snowy River.

I had a chat with David ahead of the opening of Ulster American about the content of the play, contemporary issues, and the state of theatre in 2019.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

I’ve been with Red Stitch for about 12… 13 years. We had kids in 2012, so I’ve sort of been a bit out of the loop for the last 5 years, done a play here and there. But now I’m back in the ensemble, back involved. I have a long history with the company, I was Artistic Director from 2004 – 2013.  I’ve done quite a number of plays at Red Stitch and elsewhere, I’ve done some TV guest roles here and there.

Why Ulster American?

Well, at Red Stitch, all the ensemble pick the play. When I read it, I laughed out loud. I don’t often laugh out loud when I’m reading something… I just loved the savageness of the wit, the cleverness of the concept, and I just thought that it’s something I really wanted to be involved in. All the characters are a delight, and I can see them so clearly. I just wanted to be involved in any capacity, and as it turned out, there was space for me to do that. The company has been very understanding and worked around me a little bit. It’s a very timely play, as well. It’s totally of the moment, it concerns the post #MeToo generation. It’s a comedy about men in particular, who are coming to terms with their inherited positions of power post this movement.

Ulster American in rehearsal | Photo by Dushan Philips

Can you elaborate on the themes and content of the play?

It’s very difficult to explain this play without people getting the wrong idea. It’s certainly not poking fun at victims or the situation that they have been in. It’s poking fun at our world, the world we find ourselves in post #MeToo and the behaviours that still exist, like the “Not All Men” brigade. I’d say in a much broader sense that the important thing about this play is that we live in an age now about polarising politics and online shouting. I guess it’s asking if we’ve lost the ability to sit down and talk like adults. People’s behaviour when they’re driving cars is similar… they can’t be seen and can’t see the other person, so they can be abusive, and they don’t necessarily fully understand who they’re shouting at, or what they really mean. So yes, it’s poking fun at men who, perhaps, think they might be more aware of themselves than they really are; but also at how we are so quick to leap onto the banner of righteousness, and so quick to condemn.

Why do you think this content is so relevant?

It concerns us directly as companies, but it concerns the wider community as well. The fact that we can laugh about this, it’s obviously not a funny issue, but we can poke fun at the ways in which we unthinkingly betray ourselves. Racism and sexism are still so deeply engrained in our culture and language, much deeper than we are prepared to admit. I suppose that it makes fun of our righteousness and our hysteria, our falling over ourselves to be seen on the right side of history. It’s a satire… borders on farce. It’s not just about cultural imperialism or male bigotry. It’s about Hollywood imperialism, how entitled and indulged Hollywood is in contrast to the world of theatre or local culture. And how much we are subservient to that world, even though it’s the source of so much of our angst – look at Harvey Weinstein.  It’s the one place where privilege and entitlement is still, to this day, most obvious.

Ulster American in rehearsal | Photo by Dushan Philips

The #MeToo movement has really reshaped the arts industry – do you think that, if not for the Weinstein saga, it was inevitable for someone to speak out?

I think so. For many years there’s been bad behaviour in politics, in the corporate world, and people have kind of accepted it. What was interesting about Weinstein is that it took a lot of time, but eventually there was a tide. The initial complainant was vilified in those early days, no one wanted to come out and support, even though everybody knew what was going on. I found, in my smaller experience of the industry, that a lot of behaviour both male and female is tolerated because people don’t know enough, and don’t have the power. They’re terrified of their job security. It’s compromised by the fact that in the performing arts you have to allow a certain amount of playfulness, and perhaps we’ve gone too far the other way because that’s kind of become an excuse for some people, a justification for their behaviour. You talk about Hollywood and I honestly don’t think a change in attitude would have come with such magnitude if it hadn’t come from Hollywood, because that tends to be where all power resides. People will do anything to be a part of that world, and to share in that entitlement, but what happens is that people who are given this entitlement become monsters because of that. Change starts from activism of the few, but it’s only enacted by the most powerful in society and what they’re prepared to let go of. I think that’s where we’re at at the moment.

The plot of Ulster American makes reference to the role of women in the arts industry, and how they are often undermined by their male counterparts – do you think we are stuck in a loop of conforming to expected ideals of film and theatre?

There have been lots of changes lately, in terms of racism in casting as well as male/female casting. It used to be something like for every 5 male roles there was 1 female, and even so, the female roles were always the victim, the princess, tragic figures who needed saving. And we still have a lot of that. I mean, look at the stuff that’s coming out now – sure, we don’t grope our actresses anymore, we don’t have a casting couch anymore, but we still have a lot of engrained sexism in our culture. Even if it just makes us think more deeply, this is a timely play because we’re all grappling with the nuances of this argument. A lot of those characters in Hollywood, the female characters, unfortunately a lot of women who go to Hollywood have to perpetuate that myth because they have to appeal to the men in power in order to get work in the first place. In Ulster American, these men, for all their talk about wanting to do the right thing about women, end up telling the woman what the play is, and what she is allowed to get away with. And it’s what we see happening. I don’t suppose real change will happen until we have women who are directors, casting directors, respected writers and producers in the same degree as men. And, culturally, the general public expect a certain kind of film, one that they know, one that’s been male constructed. It’s going to take time.


Ulster American | 25 August – 19 September

Red Stitch Theatre, St Kilda

Please note this show is 18+ (contains very strong language, graphic violence, and references to sexual assault)

For bookings please visit the Red Stitch website or call the Box Office on 9533 8083

 

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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