The revolution has not gone according to plan. In the chaos of collapse, one of its leaders wearily considers his legacy while expecting his own execution.
“We never made a nation,” the rebel laments. “Our brainchild. Stillborn. Our own fault. We botched the birth.”
This is not a glum reflection on 1916 but the story of a Rising deferred, in 1798, when the rebellion begun by the United Irishmen was brutally suppressed. The words belong to Henry Joy McCracken, as imagined in Stewart Parker's seminal 1984 play Northern Star: an Ulster-Scot Presbyterian-French-Huguenot Protestant (in short, a Belfast boy).
In Parker’s play, set pointedly and poignantly in “the continuous past”, McCracken has much to reflect on. In anticipation of his death on the scaffold, he hides in a collapsing cottage with his wife and their infant, planning his final speech: the performance of his life.
Within the play’s celebrated theatrical conceit, McCracken’s life revisits him in stages, structured according to the Seven Ages of Man speech given by Shakespeare’s Jacques and played out in the style of seven iconic Irish playwrights.
In a series of flashbacks, the Age of Innocence, and the optimism of the Society of United Irishmen, is played with the comic verve of Sheridan. The Age of Idealism and a coming together of Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters against British rule is held within the melodrama of Boucicault. And so on through the ages of Cleverness (Wilde), Dialectics (Shaw), Heroic (Synge), Compromise (O’Casey), and Knowledge (Behan, slipping ascetically into Beckett).
It is "pastiche as strategy", Parker wrote of Northern Star. Typically of his creative mind, which applied itself to art, academia and criticism, none of these styles is deployed for superficial reasons. To use Mark Phelan's phrase, it "both contains and critiques the Irish theatrical canon".
This can also make it sound like a play for an in-crowd. The United Irishmen believed in inclusivity, but when even scholars find it hard to decide between a Farquar or Sheridan impersonation, how inclusive is Parker’s play?
One for the wings
In a bright rehearsal room in Dublin, Lynne Parker shows me around a working set with infectious enthusiasm. Stewart Parker's niece and the artistic director of Rough Magic Theatre Company speaks like someone who might be very close to solving an intractable puzzle.
"It's set in the wings of the theatre," she says of her new production of Northern Star. "Not the stage of the theatre, but the wings; the liminal space. It makes total sense for these peripheral ghosts."
Parker's conversation mingles memories of her first production of the play (for Rough Magic in 1996) with several later revisits, including a recent production with the Lir's acting students. The effort to crack Northern Star sounds somewhere between a professional highlight and an act of filial devotion: "I felt that it was unfinished business: that we were so careful about looking at styles that we forgot the story to some extent."
Following developments made during a workshop in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in 2011 – which suggested that she stage it for them – and the Lir production in 2014, Parker is now less concerned about nailing various performance styles. These can make the actor playing Henry Joy McCracken seem like “a performing flea” leaping from Wilde to Beckett. Instead, she decided to “Brecht it a bit”.
Now the part of McCracken is shared by the ensemble, allowing the rebel (played by Paul Mallon) to observe himself in his memories, as played by Eleanor Methven, Rory Nolan or Ali White, for instance.
Rather than re-create the curlicues of a Boucicault melodrama or force a Shavian dispute, Parker prefers to concentrate on the human story, the clarity of the drama, and find contemporary correspondents.
“You have to guess at the modern equivalent at every turn,” she says. “Then the story starts to open, and become interesting, and it’s not just an exercise in style.”
This is the fascinating situation with Parker on Parker, in which the director must contain and critique the work of the writer – "my uncle and artistic mentor". (Stewart Parker died in 1988, when Lynne was 27.) She fluently distinguishes between personal and professional loyalty, although she can sometimes sound like an acolyte, marvelling at "the magician" behind the play (as do many of Parker's admirers).
“The cyclical nature of the history of Ireland and the way it would fit with all of these different theatrical voices,” she says. “He must have had that in his head and then, as he was writing, found how it chimed. We have a play set in 1798, but the correlation with 1916 is just palpable.”
At the same time, she speaks of "liberating" Northern Star, with a design concept by Zia Holly that avoids pictorial realism, or a performance idea that makes gender elastic. Has she taken liberties with the text?
"I wouldn't touch a hair on its head without the permission of the estate – which I have to get," Parker says. The estate is controlled by Lesley Bruce, Stewart's partner. "So it's not automatic that I can do anything I want."
If a major playwright's legacy is to be performed far and wide, it might be necessary to counter any perceptions that Stewart Parker's dramas belong exclusively to his niece. She has directed his plays Nightshade, Spokesong and Pentecost for Rough Magic (the latter two remounted as a double bill in 2008), Catchpenny Twist for Tinderbox and Heavenly Bodies for the Abbey.
Those productions have been among the biggest successes of her career. Otherwise, Stewart's plays have not been regularly performed in Ireland or elsewhere. Jimmy Fay directed Pentecost at the Lyric in 2014; Northern Star wasn't seen in England until 2011.
Here, Lynne can seem divided. As a champion of her uncle's work, she would like to see others stage them; as someone who identifies with them profoundly, she can seem possessive. This is heightened, somewhat, by the author's own alertness to the threat of marginalisation. Northern Star's protagonist is "drawn from the marginalia of the historical record rather than its main plot", as he put it. Stewart's admirers sometimes worry that his intellectual playfulness might marginalise him.
"Stewart's work has been horrendously ignored by some of the major institutions, including the Abbey Theatre, " Parker says of his posthumous stagings. "For a writer of this calibre, it's disgraceful."
She notes also the effect of a peripatetic career. Born to a working-class Protestant family in east Belfast, he was ambivalent towards nationality and nationalism. He returned to Belfast after a short career in academia in the US in 1969, when he had “come to terms” with the city to begin his playwriting. He would move again, to Edinburgh and finally London.
“He never really found his resting place,” says Lynne. “Home was Lesley; it wasn’t necessarily London. You got the sense that he wasn’t ever properly connected to a producing house.”
To some extent, it may be the other way around: if Parker was a writer who combined erudition and wit, politics and mischief (“multiplying dualities”, to use his own phrase), well, that has been the spirit of Rough Magic. “His philosophy and aesthetic have been a watermark through everything I’ve done,” she says. “So creatively – maybe I am saying it – Rough Magic, we didn’t get there in time, but we are here for you now. Because this is the kind of theatre company that he would have loved.”
Even this production follows a meaningful trail, from Dublin to Glasgow to Belfast.
“If people are interested in the story, and stop watching it with a view to knowing which writer they’re watching, then we will have achieved something,” Parker says of the new production. “It’s not definitive, and it never will be.”
Will her journey with the play finish with the tour? "No," she says, almost aghast. "I haven't finished with Pentecost yet either. Or Heavenly Bodies or Nightshade, or any of them. These are the plays you want to return to."
- Northern Star is at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, April 21st-May 7th; then the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, May 11th-14th; and the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, May 17th-29th