It was on a Belfast mountain I heard a maid complain
And she vexed the sweet June evening with her heartbroken strain,
Saying, "Woe is me, life's anguish is more than I can dream,
Since Henry Joy McCracken died on the gallows tree.
- Irish Folk Song
We need to talk about The Rebellion. The 1798 Rebellion.
Being completely overshadowed by The Troubles and the 1916 Easter Rising, the Irish Rebellion of 1798 has been almost completely forgotten in the twenty first century. To the Republican ears of 2016 such names as Henry Joy McCracken or James Hope are nothing but estranged ghosts of the past. Rough Magic‘s strategically brilliant decision to bring a piece like Northern Star onto the Irish stage on the centenary of the Easter Rising is quite admirable.
Having directed Northern Star a number of times before, this might be the year that Lynne Parker (who also happens to be a niece of the playwright’s) has finally “cracked” one of the most famous and much loved of Stewart Parker’s plays.
Lynne Parker didn’t only create a very strong production, she has also pushed the boundaries to such an extent that any theatre maker can use the example of Northern Star as a play where gender has very little or absolutely no relevance. Having both Eleanor Methven and Ali White play male roles put this production onto a completely new level and linked the 1984 script with the Irish reality of 2016.
Northern Star is undoubtedly nothing less but a theatrical masterpiece. Telling the story of one very shaky night in the life of Henry Joy McCracken, a founding member of the Society of the United Irishman and what looks like a chronic insomniac, who is going through seven (st)ages of a man’s life. While the young and beautiful Mary Bodell is trying to catch some sleep upstairs in the loft with McCracken’s illegitimate baby daughter by her side, the young Irishman meets the ghosts of past and present. He talks to them, he converses with them, sometimes he just sits there and listens to their stories… sometimes the visions are interrupted by the reality: McCracken is visited by his sister Mary Ann, who helps him to get new identification documents just before the British officer comes to inspect the Irishman’s shed.
Northern Star is a juicy bone; it has a lot of substance in it, a lot to take it, a plot worth sticking your teeth into. For two solid hours the intriguing storyline and the mesmerizing acting grabs your full attention and doesn’t let it go even for a blink of an eye. Divided into seven (st)ages in total, we first witness McCracken during his Sheridan innocence, slowly but firmly progressing into Boucicault old-fashioned melodrama (which slightly resembles the pompous and over the top Commedia dell’arte), then going through somewhat witty and highly amusing Wilde-ness straight into Shaw’s realism, O’Casey’s heroism and Irishness, and rounding up with a very Beckettian chilling to the core ending. All the way from laughter to tears, this piece will leave you in beats.
Even for those who are not that much into theatre, all the styles used in this play will be easily identifiable and much enjoyed. Not to give any spoilers I can only add that one or two scenes will make the hairs on the back of your neck bristle, be it from the horror of the realism of the terror and spookiness of the supernatural. Every viewer will find something to enjoy and to identify with, that one I can guarantee.
It’s not just the brilliantly written and structured story that will amuse and completely conquer the audience, it’s the wonderful ensemble of actors (Rory Nolan, Eleanor Methevn, Ali White, Darragh Kelly, Charlotte McCurry, Robbie O’Connor, Paul Mallon and Richard Clements) and crew that has visibly put an enormous amount of time and thought into this production.
If all that hasn’t been enough to make you want to go and see Northern Star, then wait until I mention the technical aspects of the play. I have never doubted the amazing Zia Holly in her craft but in this production her work is simply stunning. With a very sharp and precise direction on Lynne Parker’s side and Holly’s designs of set and lighting, the play immediately transports you into the agonising night of McCracken’s tired mind. Conveniently, it has a strong resemblance to a theatre’s wings. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…” says McCracken quoting Shakespeare.
Joan O’Cleary is the one who is responsible for the costume designs. With a total cast of eight actors, almost all of them are doubling and tripling, the costume changes happen so quickly that one can’t help but question oneself if it’s the same person standing on the stage. “But that’s what Stewart Parker wanted”, says Lynne Parker “the actors can switch roles by simply taking off or putting on a hat”. Nevertheless, the idea of having McCracken always wearing the same jacket that would easily identify him (the character is played by different actors male and female) during different (st)ages of his life is simple but ingenious, at the same time.
All the music and sound effects are done live by the actors on stage. Some of the sounds are really basic and created by simply tapping on a tambourine, but it’s the perfect timing and the effect it makes on the scene that makes all the difference. Charlotte McCurry’s a’capella singing is simply stunning.
Northern Star runs in The Project Arts Center until May 7th, after which the play is going go on a short tour to The Lyric Theatre Belfast and The Tron Theatre Glasgow. Perfect for its time, this production is a true masterpiece of Northern Irish Theatre. For more info or to book tickets: http://projectartscentre.ie/event/northern-star/