by Stewart Parker.
Finborough Theatre above The Finborough Wine Café 118 Finborough Road SW10 9ED To 21 February 2011.
Runs 2hr 25min One interval.
TICKETS: 0844 847 1652 (24hr no booking fee).
Review: Timothy Ramsden 13 February.
A moment in Ireland’s history boldly revealed.
A wry-looking Stewart Parker peers from the remains of a telephone kiosk amid bomb-rubble in the programme of Worn Red Theatre Company’s British premiere at the Finborough. The playwright, who died in 1988 in his late forties, might have been looking to the future, wondering why his 1984 play would wait 27 years for a mainland production.
Or more realistically, back to the 1790s setting for this sweeping look at the Society of United Irishmen and one particular member at the centre of the action, Henry Joy McCracken.
Closer in time to Oliver Cromwell and even the Elizabethan Earl of Essex, two Englishmen who led attacks on the Irish, than to us McCracken was an idealist who wanted Protestant and Catholic alike to work for Ireland’s liberty. In a literary-tinged movement (the ‘Northern Star’ was historically a newspaper) McCracken asserted Belfast’s role in the movement.
Magnificent as were some of the men he knew, there were also less enlightened forces during these late-Enlightenment times, when Tom Paine’s books were a reason for learning to read and when revolutions in America and France had set expectations for change high. Twice in the play homes are invaded: once by musket-toting British dragoons, once by orange-masked ‘orange men’ as they’d begun calling themselves.
Along with other injustices and oppressions, their mindsets lead straight to that bombed-out kiosk. And it’s not too surprising Parker adopts a freewheeling form through McCracken’s life from its final hours, as he awaits execution – indeed ties and tightens his own noose – the play forming the recollections and thoughts behind his final speech to the “Citizens of Belfast” – the script’s final ringing words, “Citizens” having especial force in those optimistic times.
A young cast lacks the gravitas of some older characters, leaving certain scenes outlined rather than fully-drawn. Technique can be stretched at times. But the verve, understanding and commitment to the material in Caitlin McLeod’s production make this play’s political complexities both comprehensible and thrilling as the actors depict the dangerous ferment in a moment of hope that preceded – and might have avoided – so many Troubles to come.
Henry Joy McCracken: Jonathan Harden.
Mary Bodle: Clare McMahon.
Samuel Neilson/Sergeant of the Dragoons/Teeling//Prisoner 1: Michael Byers.
Jimmy Hope/Girvan: Sean Pol McGreevy.
Thomas Russell/2nd Orangeman/Captain of Dragoons: Adam Best.
Peggy/Mary Ann McCracken: Helen Belbin.
Belle-Martin/Cecily/Phantom Bride: Gemma-Leah Devereux.
Hammill/Wolfe Tone/McFadden/Haslett/Prisoner 3: Mark Edel-Hunt.
Edward Bunting/Gorman/Warder/Prisoner 2: Anthony Delaney.
Director: Caitlin McLeod.
Designer: Clem Garrity.
Lighting: Elliot Griggs.
Music: Ben Osborn, Tegid Cartwright.