Saturday, May 21, 2016

Northern Star - the seven ages of Henry Joy McCracken (Lyric Theatre until 29 May)

“Citizens of Belfast …”

The clever set for Northern Star portrays the backstage area of a theatre, with piles of props and a cue station monitoring the action on the other side so the backdrop. It’s quickly clear that this a metaphor for Henry Joy McCracken’s seven reminisces on the eve of his arrest and execution. A noose hangs over the stage as another reminder of McCracken’s ultimate fate.

The script’s opening stage directions are read aloud at the start reminding the audience that the cast flit between characters during the play. A large Lambeg drums sits on its side at one corner of the stage, along with a piano and various other instruments. Members of the cast slip in and play.

McCracken is mostly played by Paul Mallon in a low key performance, while other male and female cast members get to wear his fetching green jacket too. He’s a leading light in the Society of the United Irishmen in Belfast (liberal Protestants who longed to end British interference in Ireland and bring about a shared social change).
“Every joke turning into a nightmare. Every nightmare into a joke. That’s an Irish lullaby.”

Words flow out of McCracken’s troubled mouth like a tap that is stuck open. He’s simultaneously eloquent, quotable, incisive and absurd. He’s hiding with Mary Bodle (Charlotte McCurry) and their illegitimate baby in a cottage with a loft in one corner of the set. She dozes upstairs with their daughter while he spends a sleepless night talking to the ghosts of his past. Mallon and McCurry are joined on stage by Richard Clements, Darragh Kelly, Eleanor Methven, Rory Nolan, Robbie O’Connor and Ali White.

Other reviewers who are more ‘in the know’ will explain how different scenes in the play are written by Stewart Parker in the style of other Irish playwrights (Wilde, Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Beckett etc). But that device is lost on the average audience member who like me will merely notice some abrupt changes of language and style.
“It isn't true to say they forget nothing. It's far worse than that. They misremember everything.”

Heavy themes of identity, nationhood and legacy run through the play. There’s a little humour – Wolfe Tone has the most outrageous costume and the dark glassed beret wearing duo cut a comedic pair in the second half – but it’s mostly pretty serious.

In the end Lynne Parker’s direction and Zia Holly’s set couldn’t overcome the obstacles in the original script to transport me back to 1798. The clash of styles and the density of the language left me exhausted and I came out of Northern Star only a little the wiser. The thrust of Stewart Parker’s Pentecost proved much more accessible when performed on the same stage last year.

Rough Magic’s Northern Star has toured through Dublin and Glasgow and plays in the Lyric Theatre until 29 May.

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