David Lewis sees a masterly playwright at work in the Parker Project. Click Play Audio to hear the Parker Project Podcast
Let’s get the easy bit out of the way first. What follows is a playwright endorsement. Stewart Parker matters. If you haven’t seen any of his plays, this is your chance to see not one but two and in the playwright’s native city to boot. Since Parker’s untimely death in 1988, such an opportunity hasn’t come along too often. Grab it.
Parker was the greatest Belfast playwright of his generation and in this co-production the Lyric and Rough Magic serve up his first and last plays for re-examination – Spokesong and Pentecost.
The works haven’t dated one iota. Spokesong’s paen to the humble bicycle feels bang up to date – the idea that Belfast might one day have a free cycle scheme far less ludicrous now than it might have seemed in 1974.
As the historical revisionists try to drop-kick the Troubles into the dim, distant past, a reminder of the days when the IRA were eagerly ‘liberating us’ from legs, arms and other body parts is equally timely.
Pentecost is set during the Ulster Workers Strike, again in 1974, when Paisley and his bully boys brought down the power-sharing executive, which was, er, pretty much exactly the same as the power-sharing executive that Paisley now leads. The play drives home the atmosphere of terror, confusion and violence, as riots, blockades and power shortages bring the country to a standstill.
‘Was Paisley really that bad then?’ we may have been tempted to ask ourselves recently. ‘Is Paisley really that hypocritical now?’ Pentecost sets the answers out in stark black and white – oh yes he was and oh yes he is.
‘All plays are ghost plays,’ Parker stated in a lecture in 1986. ‘They issue forth and take their shape from a conflict within the writer himself, often a wrestling match between the soothsayer and the medium, mind and intuition.’
The 'wrestling match' here results in line after line that you wish you had the ability to write.
‘I found out the truth about this country at last,’ says Daisy Bell, disillusioned history teacher in Spokesong. ‘It’s all granite, all the way through – a great flat thick slab of granite. Oh, there’s a rich vein of humanity in it, no doubt. But it’s not worth quarrying … It’s too narrow and too damned shallow.’
Frank Stock, Daisy’s desperado beau and owner of ‘The Spokesman’ bicycle shop, which is under threat of demolition, is similarly eloquent.
‘But it’s all past tense now. Blood under the bridge. This property is condemned. What I want to know is … your past … the past, I’m talking about … the air’s full of it … you have to breathe it .. but you can’t grab hold of it … you see what I’m saying … it’s everywhere but you can’t locate it … you see where I’m driving … how can something that’s fundamental … be irrecoverable … and uncontrollable … answer me that … you take the point … how are you supposed to live?’
Parker’s characters are haunted by the previous generations. At times the lines between the living and the dead, the real and the fantastical, are impossible to distinguish.
The early scenes in Pentecost, when Lily, the dead Protestant house owner, remonstrates with new Catholic tenant Marion, are extraordinary. I found myself holding my breath at Eleanor Methven’s flinty performance.
A sure sign of skillful writing is that amidst the pain and suffering blooms genuine humour. This is especially true of Spokesong, with its surreal mix of cabaret and song. A huge mirror lights up like a dance hall dressing room and Marty Rea takes to the stage looking like something from a Magritte painting in petrol blue velvet tails, tartan trousers and bowler hat. Bicycles sail around the auditorium, poetry in motion. For an instant we believe Frank's pesudo-philosophy: ‘You can’t despair for the human race when you see somebody riding a bicycle.’
Yet for all the magic, both productions, although they huff and puff admirably, never quite blow the house down. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. As you would expect, director Lynne Parker, Parker’s niece, brings an insider’s knowledge to the plays and keeps the action taut and energetic. The sets are evocative of the eras, the actors efficient about their work.
Perhaps it’s the staging in the Old Northern Bank, which doesn’t really add anything to the productions, beyond the nagging suspicion that this is an old building with plenty of ghosts of its own. The ‘in transverse’ seating, with the audience on either side of a raised stage is also slightly annoying, the actors having to twist and turn to project to both sides of the room.
In the case of Spokesong, Dan Gordon, looking more and more like Gerard Depardieu, is maybe too old for the part of Frank Stock – the gap between him and his younger sibling stretches credulity. Gordon plays the part in a low key, understated way, making Frank Stock an Everyman not a Spokesman, given to fantastical flights of fancy and illustrated lectures.
In the case of Pentecost, the chemistry between the cast simmers nicely without really sizzling. Perhaps it’s just a case that early in the run the intensity of the performances doesn’t quite match the intensity of the writing.
Either way, it's a moot point as there’s more than enough marrow to suck on and make the Parker Project an exciting theatrical experience. Just don’t wait for the next Stewart Parker anniversary before you see one if not two of his masterly works.
The Parker Project runs at the Old Northern Bank until May 17. Click here for more details.