Saturday 24 February 2018

Review: Lead hinders play bristling with energy

Theatre: Northern Star, Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Director Lynne Parker.
Director Lynne Parker.

Katy Hayes

Henry Joy McCracken, his lover Mary and their illegitimate baby daughter hide out in a cottage in the hills. The 1798 United Irishmen rebellion has just failed. The yeomen are on their way and McCracken, like the rebellion, is doomed.

As the events of his last evening unfold, McCracken's life flashes before him, rendered in scenes of pastiche as might be written by Irish writers, including Boucicault, O'Casey and Beckett. These scenes function on their own terms as comedy, and recognising the styles is simply an added bonus for theatre nerds.

Highly theatrically self-conscious, the work bristles with energy. Though McCracken is primarily played by a single actor, in several of the playlets other actors portray him. At one stage we have four Henry Joy McCrackens in green coats with white neck ruffles on the stage. This is not at all confusing, and very funny.

Lynne Parker directs her uncle's work for Rough Magic with characteristic brio. Its multiple time settings and comic pastiches are handled by the excellent ensemble with spectacular energy and aplomb.

But the enterprise is marred by Paul Mallon's abject interpretation of Henry Joy McCracken. When his fellow prisoners in the Behan pastiche accuse him of self-pity, you can't help agreeing with them.

Instead of being a charismatic leader, he is petulant and whiney. If McCracken failed fully to inspire the country in 1798, he still needs to electrify the audience in the present.

The theatricality of the work is enhanced by Zia Holly's brilliant design which sets the action in a jumbled backstage space. Use of instruments providing percussive tension, including a big fat Lambeg drum, is another fine touch.

Stewart Parker's multiple time set play from the 1980s gains another historical layer in the 30 years that have elapsed since its premiere. It is a reminder that the idea of nationhood used to be the regular stuff of Irish dramatists, and not just in centenary year commissions.

Irish Independent

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