Stewart Parker - The Northern Star

Queen's Drama Department commemorate Belfast playwright with a critical look at some of his best work

November 2, 2008 marked the 20th anniversary of the death of playwright Stewart Parker. To commemorate the life and work of Belfast’s most visionary playwright, Queen’s Drama Department, in association with the Institute of Irish Studies, hosted the first major international conference evaluating Parker’s extraordinary artistic achievement.

In addition to this, and in close association with the Stewart Parker Trust, the Belfast Festival and the Dr Mark PhelanBBC, an exciting retrospective of Parker’s work was also hosted by Queen’s Drama Department, compiled and organised by lecturer in drama studies, Dr Mark Phelan. This comprised several rehearsed readings, film screenings, photographic displays, and the publication of three books of Parker’s work.

In his work for radio, stage, and screen - as well as his poetry, journalism and criticism - Parker’s politics and aesthetics were extraordinary for their pluralism and prescience. Here, CultureNorthernIreland reproduce programme notes of selected Parker plays, radio plays, screen plays and collected writings, written by academics and theatre practitioners, from the accompanying Queen's Drama Department brochure.

Radio Pictures - Programme Note Dr Sophie Lecerf (University Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle)

Radio Pictures was originally transmitted on July 16, 1985 on the BBC. In this screenplay Parker pays a playfully bittersweet tribute to radio drama, for which he wrote extensively during his apprentice years. The play takes place in a studio during the recording of a radio play, Mr Deadman and Miss Goodbody, which narrates the ambiguous relationship between an ageing peeping Tom and his young victim.

Throughout the play, Parker reveals the (not-so-)wonderful world of radio drama with its cheap and hilarious home-made sound effects and its disgruntled actors who alleviate the boredom knitting and gossiping between the takes. 

Susanna, who plays Miss Goodbody, complains she can’t play a character who is 'all body language' on the radio and later admits that she only accepted the role to make money. Bryce, the narrow-minded director, is in a hurry to finish and when the author, Rory Colquhon, expresses his disappointment at Bryce’s ill-advised directorial decisions, you can hear Parker raging against bad productions of his own plays. Indeed, such dissatisfaction led him to withdraw his name from the credits of a television film Eat the Peach the year after.

Beyond this satirical sideswipe at radio drama, Radio Pictures deals with the role of the artist in a society torn apart by violence. Colquhon insists that his play, Mr Deadman and Miss Goodbody, is an allegory. Deadman fantasizes on Miss Goodbody from a distance, but avoids meeting her: 'He wants a truth that remains in his control. A pure object of desire'. 

Inner play and outer play absorb each other, as it appears that Colquhon actually behaves just like Deadman. Although he maintains that he is devastated to witness Northern Ireland sliding into chaos, he simply doesn’t feel concerned. 

He argues that artists need to escape from the world of matter and take refuge in an imaginative world, as he explains to Susanna: 'the imagination is something else, it goes its own way, it has to be let do that, even when the city’s burning'. But the actress challenges this poetic license, emphasizing the obscenity of his claim. Colquhon is a voyeur, and his words are useless.

Once again, Parker insists on the responsibility of the playwright to his own place and people, emphasizing the power of drama to inspire and offer alternatives when the city’s burning. 

Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain - Programme note Dr Clare Wallace (Charles University Prague)

Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain was broadcast on BBC1 on November 24, 1981 as part of the well-Stewart Parkerknown Play for Today series. The script was published in full in Irish Studies Review in 1998, edited and introduced by Marilynn Richtarik. 

Richtarik provides a detailed account of the genesis and development of the project. Parker was initially invited by BBC producer June Roberts to contribute something to the Play for Today series in 1979. As Richtarik explains, the idea for the play derived in part from a story told to Parker by a friend and later acquired a Joycean framework. 

Parker later was to refer to the play as 'a condensed female variant on the Dedalus-Bloom odyssey'. It is an odyssey that takes place in Belfast, and this gave rise to some conflict when the proposed director, Stephen Frears, wanted a much more explicit story of the Troubles. Ultimately, no agreement was reached and production was delayed while a new director was sought.

Life in Belfast is evoked visually in the play: Iris trudging along near City Hall; Ruby driving past red-brick terraces; Iris being searched by a security guard as she enters a department store; Ruby’s car being checked by the police. Military vehicles and soldiers frequently stray into the frame. But these deliberately remain peripheral to the narrative core, even though they bear upon it. As Parker put it in a letter to Frears: 'The soldiers, the bombs, the political rhetoric, they take for granted, they’ve lived with it forever, it’s like the traffic and the rain'. 

In the foreground are the social problems that plague the city’s working-class inhabitants, and the callous responses to these problems from the middle classes.

A certain restless agitation governs most of the play’s characters, and the aggressive strains of Stiff Little Fingers sets the tone for Ruby’s odyssey through Belfast. By the play’s conclusion, a trio of responses to the conditions of Belfast life has emerged: the loss of sanity; emigration; or staying on and surviving together. Strikingly, it is the female characters that seem most rooted in the city. Fleeing the chilly middle-class restraint of her mother’s 'well-appointed' semi-detached house, Ruby finds warmth and friendship in Joyce’s home.

Running discreetly beneath the social themes is a somewhat ironic reference to Ulysses. Ruby the Bloom figure, played by Frances Tomelty, is a vigorous if flu-sodden social worker who journeys the city sneezing and assisting others. Iris the Stephen figure, played by Aingeal Grehan, is a rather passive, incurious character who is regularly and haphazardly caught up in others’ activities. Other connections with Ulysses are suggested by the setting of various scenes, in an office, a pub, a hospital and finally the house where the two protagonists meet in the evening.

Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain is an unlikely combination of elements. Yet the discreet Joyce reference, the punk gig, and the soundtrack, lend unexpected nuances to the social problem play structure that was emblematic of Play for Today

The closing shots of the cramped living-room full of children and women talking and drinking tea intercuts with the patrolling police car in the darkened, decrepit street outside, to provide an atypical, but characteristically optimistic, image of Belfast life brimming with communal life, generosity and trust. 

Read more programme notes from Stewart Parker - Northern Star Part II, Part III.