White Star of the North

'White Star of the North' by Rosemary Jenkinson at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Photo: Steffan Hill

'White Star of the North' by Rosemary Jenkinson at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Photo: Steffan Hill

Roisin Gallagher and Crawford Massey in 'White Star of the North' by Rosemary Jenkinson at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Photo: Steffan Hill

Roisin Gallagher and Crawford Massey in 'White Star of the North' by Rosemary Jenkinson at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Photo: Steffan Hill

"This white heat in you for living, like a star in the sky". The line's addressed to Crawford Massey by his father Robert, and from it Rosemary Jenkinson's new Titanic play takes its title. The reference to White Star Line (Titanic's owners) is there, of course, but it's peripheral. The focus is on family, not sinking funnels: “Titanoraks” (as they're being labelled in centenary-fevered Belfast) will find little in it to titillate their inner boat-fancier.

White Star of the North focuses on the political situation in 1912, with Home Rule on the horizon in Belfast and Carson's army mobilising. The Massey family, if not exactly torn apart by clashing political and personal allegiances, is certainly bifurcated by them. On the one hand Robert, a chirpy, open-minded liberal distrustful of factionality, plies an honest trade as doctor, regaling his children with nuggets of Carl Jung and cod-scientific sagacity, and valiantly seeking to keep the familial atmosphere congenial in the absence of his dead wife Nelly.

Photo: Steffan HillOn the other, however, son Crawford, moonlighting from his day job at the Ulster Bank, is already drilling with the Union boys, and spitting fire against a possible Dublin parliament controlling Northern business. Daughter Evelyn is damaged goods emotionally, a refugee from a disastrous marriage to a Catholic, whose family have dubbed her a "Protestant whore" and spirited her child away for safe-keeping.

Robert, eventually despairing of his children's state of mind and future prospects, buys them tickets on Titanic. A new life in America beckons, with uncle Hugh, a chancer thrown out of Dromore for sheep-stealing, now supposedly prospering "in glassware" in New York (he's an itinerant quack in reality).

Of course the siblings never get there, an iceberg ripping the dream of emigration violently asunder before it's properly started. The fatal impact registers in this Lyric Theatre production as a muffled thud in the background, its aftermath represented by trickles of water streaming gently down what had hitherto appeared an opaquely timbered, slanted backdrop. Its transmogrification into semi-transparency is a striking coup de théâtre, and has a curiously soothing, poetic impact.

The fine balance of relationships within the Massey family is played out in sensitively nuanced fashion by Ruairi Conaghan (Robert), Andrew Simpson (Crawford), and Roisin Gallagher (Evelyn). Sharp divergences of opinion, while never underplayed, are carefully contextualised by both actors and playwright within the underlying warmth of feeling the characters retain for one another, the ties of flesh and blood that bind beyond the conflicts of a given moment.

This enduring solidarity, conceived by Jenkinson as something virtually tribal in its origins, is stirringly deployed in the play’s final, abiding image – that of son and father clasping hands aloft, vowing, “though the winds are wild”, to “weather it through” together. There’s more than a touch of stylised Syngian poetry here, though Jenkinson’s dialogue is generally earthier and leanly quotidian in nature.

White Star’s obvious empathy with the besieged Protestant mentality of the Titanic era is not, however, narrowly sectarian. Jenkinson skilfully contrives, for instance, to counterbalance Crawford’s trenchant anti-Home Rule arguments with the sickeningly blinkered prejudices of the Unionist Sergeant who covertly drills him in the volunteer militia forces.

Michael Liebmann. Photo: Steffan HillMichael Liebmann potently suggests the disturbing combination of thick-skulled partiality and latent violence that define this sinister individual. He’s excellent also as the soulless, smugly self-satisfied English Commissioner at the post-disaster inquiry, who quizzes Crawford about the allegation that he escaped the foundering Titanic by masquerading as a woman.

Evelyn, a broken woman with no will left for living, elects to perish aboard the sinking ship with suicidal indifference. Her extreme fragility is movingly depicted by Roisin Gallagher, who also deftly etches in reminders of the wholesomeness and beneficence that defined the character in happier times, before those qualities were smashed to pieces on the hard rocks of religious division.

Des Kennedy directs unfussily, with a restrained precision that carefully avoids the type of overheated ranting actors can resort to in drama where there’s strong political content. The dark vertical struts of Ciaran Bagnall’s set economically define a variety of domestic, on-board and al fresco situations, and his understated lighting bathes the action in gentle sepia suffusions, suggestively evoking its distance from the present.

White Star is, essentially, a tautly scripted, historically resonant family drama, cleverly anatomising how the macro-issues of emigration and politics unavoidably impact on ordinary individuals, as big events unfold around them. In its way, the play is quietly revisionist, switching attention away from splintering icebergs and body-counts in this momentous year of Titanic commemoration. It’s not the ship that matters, Jenkinson seems to be saying. It’s people, people, people….

Terence Blain

  • Review
  • Theatre

White Star of the North by Rosemary Jenkinson

28 March - 14 April, 2012

Produced by the Lyric Theatre
In the Lyric Theatre

Directed by Des Kennedy

Lighting and Set Design: Ciaran Bagnall

Costume Design: Diana Ennis

With: Ruairi Conaghan, Andrew Simpson, Roisin Gallagher, Michael Liebmann, Kerr Logan