Henry Joy McCracken, Belfast-born United Irishman, is on the run following the failure of the 1978 rebellion. Stewart Parker’s award-winning Northern Star, written in 1984, is brought to life by Rough Magic Theatre’s charismatic ensemble.
Parker’s play joins McCracken (Paul Mallon) as he dissects his revolutionary path to this point in the company of his partner Mary Brodie (Charlotte McCurry) and their child over the long night that preceded his arrest and eventual execution. The writing is pointed, lyrical and both deeply evocative and appreciative of the Ulster gallows humour it is fond of. Moreover, the play serves a purpose in keeping with Rough Magic’s aims, both examining this historical period through a personal perspective and then tracing this history through the traditions of Irish theatre. Fine pastiches of Sheridan, Boucicault, Wilde, Shaw, O’Casey, Behan and Beckett are presented in each age of McCracken’s life. The result has the feeling and effect of a sketch show; not every reference needs to land, but cumulatively it is hugely engaging.
Lynne Parker, artistic director of Rough Magic, opts for a stripped-back aesthetic, drawing attention to the meta-theatrical awareness in the script. Simple costumes are exchanged between actors to signify character changes and the words “STAGE LEFT” dominate half the stage – the other half is occupied by the rear of some stage flats. Northern Star even opens with the reading of stage directions. These choices mean that the ability of the performers to effectively tell stories is continually brought to the fore. Rough Magic’s ensemble brim with energy, switching between their roles with skill. Eleanor Methven and Darragh Kelly are particularly impressive, and their respective turns as the Captain of Dragoons and Jeremy Hope earn a great deal of depth in such a short amount of time.
McCracken and Brodie spend much of the night discussing how he might be remembered after his death, or more likely “misremembered”. What will become of his legacy? The contested relationships Ireland has to its past and prominent historical figures are emphasised as Richard Clements, Rory Nolan and Ali White all play past ages of McCracken. McCracken, and the history of his revolutionary career, is fragmented. This decision has the adverse effect of diluting the connection between the audience and the central character. Paul Mallon performs this role from the play’s present with nuance but the most dramatic moments of the piece, including its climax, fall short of hitting the emotional notes they strive for.
Rough Magic’s decision to revive this work and bring it to Scottish audiences – who themselves have questions of independence in mind – makes for relevant night at the theatre. Moreover, the energy and wit of this talented ensemble ensure Northern Star is an engaging encounter with Irish political and theatrical history