Northern Star review: Northern Star review: A riff on nationalism with profound resonances

Rough Magic’s production of Stewart Parker’s play about the 1798 rebellion enriches the self-consciousness of the dramatic style

Northern Star
Project Arts Centre

Rough Magic interrogates the 1798 rebellion in their production of Stewart Parker's 1984 play. Parker, writing from Belfast at the height of the Troubles, takes Antrim man Henry Joy McCracken as his protagonist, and through a brilliant blend of real-time and fantastical time lapses, explores the months leading up to his death, by hanging, in July 1798.

The play is rich in theatrical metaphor, and director Lynne Parker enriches the self-consciousness of the dramatic style by continuously disrupting the theatrical illusion. Opening stage directions are read out in their entirety, the cast share roles without regard to gender, and Zia Holly's set, filled with potential props and discarded rubbish, becomes a playground for characters to re-enact key scenes. Joan O'Clery's costumes draw from a contemporary register, save for the symbolic green coats of the United Irishmen, which becomes a talisman for McCracken (embodied by Paul Mallon with almost luminous idealism).

Many of the flashback scenes are played as pantomime, with ensemble cast members Eleanor Methven and Rory Nolan, in particular, distinguishing themselves as innkeeper Peggy Barclay and gun-wielding Dublin gurrier Gorman.


However, the real-time scenes between Mallon's McCracken and his lover Mary Bodle (played with pragmatic passion by Charlotte McCurry) carry an emotional heft that Parker could have used to greater effect.

Northern Star is a messy, chaotic riff on nationalism, whose resonances with contemporary commemorations of the 1916 Rising are subtle yet profound. It is not always an easy play to watch, or follow, but Rough Magic has sculpted something beautiful and moving from its scattered structure.

  • Until May 7th, then Lyric Theatre, Belfast, May 17th-29th
Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer