Yeah, I know: it's the bardic tradition, the influence of the Abbey Theatre, but when I'm praying that the revolutionary hero in Northern Star would put his head in the fucking noose, the deconstruction of political mythology is kinda lost. Sam Beckett, who knew his way around dramatic structure, stopped writing in English because he found it too easy to just ramble and impress. If only more Irish playwrights would impose limitations on their scripts - like a maximum word count.
It's a shame because Rough Magic's production has some really
smart ideas. A few too many, perhaps, but nothing that editing the speeches wouldn't cure. Yeah, I'm breaking the law of the critic there, suggesting a specific cure rather than identifying a symptom. But round about that time that Henry McCraken started describing how it felt to be in prison under a blanket, my mind collapsed under the weight of words like an Ikea chair when the UKIP MEP for Scotland sits down. All bets are off.
Stewart Parker's script starts with a standard Brechtian riff: the first scene has a description of the events as theatre, explaining how the cast is going to jump between roles and the mechanics of theatrical ilusion. The scenography is allusive, with flats and simple props and a big sign saying STAGE LEFT. The point is clear: this is not naturalistic theatre. It's pretend.
He follows this up by repeatedly pointing out the close connection between acting and politics, sometimes in cheeky jokes. The protagonist McCraken reflects on his life, recognising his failure and analysing how his life would be recast as heroic, despite his recognition of his failure. Parker has a gift for poetic language - a tavern scene reaches to cod-Shakespearean heights - and the different styles of each episode keeps the energy flowing...
And the preoccupation with history, expressed by McCraken but also a feature of revolutionary romantics, is cleverly incorporated, through anachronistic costumes (one geezer looking like Oscar Wilde and giving it the dandy banter, another couple all dressed up like IRA hit-men from the 1970s) and the stylistic shifts. That scene were McCracken monologues under a blanket links Bobby Sands and Beckett, if only my brain could take it in.
I'm just not sure what Northern Star is meant to be. It could be a
clever bit of epic theatre, like Brecht suggests. Epic theatre is opposed to tragic theatre, in which events unfold with a painful inevitability (so said Aristotle). Epic theatre shows a series of events, but allows the audience to consider other possibilities. The first scene, and the scenography, totally suggested this.
But given that it starts with the hero banging on about getting hung, and it ends with him getting hung, it is kind of inevitable. And with all the stylistic shifts, it hard to take it all in, let alone consider alternative realities.
More effectively, it deconstructs the myth of the revolutionary. By framing each episode with McCracken's cynical reflections, the glorious progress of a warrior-philosopher is exposed as a series of failures. This is undermined by the swagger of McCracken, as he bangs birds to uncover spies, leads a tiny army against insurmountable odds, shows principle in prison and has his girlfriend getting in and out of bed trying to persuade him to have some kip.
The rejection of the heroic is the most bracing aspect of the show. While the egalitarian philosophy of the United Irish movement is never mocked - even in the lengthy conversations that detail divisions and ironies - McCraken is given a human, rather than iconic, representation. His doubts, his misgivings, and final rejection of the armed solution to oppression, all combine to picture a man tormented by his legacy. Northern Star outstays its welcome, perhaps because of its ambition, but it is energised by a desire to use theatre to communicate complex ideas.