This bracing and beguiling evening resurrects one star and introduces a new one. The lyrical, irreverent voice of the late playwright Stewart Parker sings the audience through the history of the Society of United Irishmen and, as narrator Henry Joy McCracken, actor Jonathan Harden reveals himself as an extraordinary talent whose performance leaves an afterglow like a good whiskey.
The United Irishmen – inspired by the spirit of the French Revolution – believed in Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters joining forces, initially to reform Parliament, ultimately to drive out British Rule. In 1798 they led a failed rebellion in which thousands died. That’s why the start of the play finds us in a partly burnt-out cottage deep in the Ulster countryside, which one of the rebel leaders, McCracken (a Presbyterian), is using as a safe house.
The audience walks into the auditorium to see him sitting, half-naked, faced away from them, with a suspended rope tracing a sinister line against his spine. As the play opens he turns and fashions the rope into the noose from which he will eventually be hanged.
Not – you would imagine – a cue for many laughs, but in fact there are plenty in a drama that takes Shakespeare’s seven ages of man as a frame for looking back on McCracken’s life, and stages each ‘age’ according to the style of different Irish playwrights including Wilde, Behan and Beckett.
Caitlin McLeod’s production deftly navigates the multitude of voices so that it comes across as the bittersweet celebration of Irishness which Parker intended. A slightly uneven cast enthusiastically juggles the many roles, balancing enjoyable caricature with more heartfelt political passion. But it is Harden who burns brightest, showing Parker’s play for the lost gem it is.