First performed in Belfast’s Lyric Players’ Theatre in 1984, Stewart Parker’s vivid representation of United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken, returns to the same, albeit refurbished theatre, thirty-two years later.
Set in 1798, it is a play self-consiously reflective on the past, the past seven years of McCracken’s politically active life to be precise. Opening on the eve before his scheduled execution, Northern Star is filled with memories and the constant, self-deprecating questioning of where it all went wrong for the idealistic McCracken, who dreamed confidently of an Ireland stripped of self-imposed divisions and sectarian hostilities.
To transcend these barriers between neighbours and find what it means to be Irish “…when you distilled it down to its raw spirit” was the burning question and call to action for McCracken and one that ultimately led to his hanging in Cornmarket, Belfast in 1798. The play crucially questions whether Ireland exists beyond its troubles or if it is defined by the very troubles McCracken wishes to escape.
The play opens with the stage directions read dramatically by the cast for the audience. From the play’s inception the audience is aware of its ending because it is written in history itself. McCracken is played by Paul Mallon who captures the sense of his disillusionment, a disillusionment that nonetheless doesn’t quite manage to hold down his spirit and energy. Mallon’s performance is one of pent up frustration with no adequate outlet. Even on the eve of his execution, McCracken’s idealism hasn’t been suppressed.
“Ireland’s continuous past” is the contradictory yet thought provoking phrase that the action of Parker’s Northern Star ultimately hinges on. Even the idealistic McCracken, appears at moments, exhausted by Ireland’s self-perpetuating complications. There is a cachophany of varying Northern Irish, Southern Irish and English accents all arguing throughout for their “side”. The feeling of impossibility is seen to grow in the seven years of his life as he struggles to uphold his vision for Ireland.
As a play that holds much resonance with its audience today, the “citizens of Belfast” as we are called, we have cause to question the sheer history that Ireland’s age old difficulties had behind it even in 1798. For complications that should be viewed in retrospect, they still hold a relevance for an audience who realistically lived through similar sectarian troubles of one kind or another that do not feel so far behind.
Although set in 1798, the cast are dressed in mostly modern clothing, perhaps reflective on the fact that the play itself is a modern imagining of 1798 and how we cannot truly move beyond on our own retrospective view. A green and orange coat, uniting the two opposing “sides” through colour is donned on the various representations of McCracken in the seven years of his life preceding. A continuous symbol throughout, it accentuates his passion for what he believed in.
“Why did you have to resort to the gun?” McCracken’s lover Mary Bodle (played by Charlotte McCurry) questions. This crucial question essential pin-points where it went wrong for McCracken. His “moral force” turned to “physical force” and this “inescapable logic of events” is how his idealism becomes tarnished in the play. He then becomes no better than the threatening armed IRA men and Orange men he berates in the course of the play.
Without being mawkish and unrealistic, Lynne Parker upholds McCracken’s will to hold steadfastly to what others saw as impossible. His energy does not stagnate into disillusionment through the stubborn complications of Ireland.
He is, however presented as a flawed martyr of sorts. His continuing fascination with the noose throughout hints at a sense of self-conscious heroism and the want to die for what he believed in. As the stage fades to black with McCracken by the noose, the sound of Alternative Ulster by Belfast band Stiff Little Fingers fills the theatre. Although contrasting with the 1798 setting, it still works undeniably well as Belfast’s musical catalogue was significant to Stewart Parker’s.