Review: Strife Is Rife In The Plough And The Stars
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When Sean O’Casey gave a less than heroic account of the events of the 1916 Easter Rising — in which almost 500 people died — in his play The Plough and the Stars ten years after it happened, it provoked riots at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.
Now we can see that this superbly crafted tragicomedy depicts the big historical events of the fight for Irish independence from British colonial rule from the viewpoint of those ordinary people on the fringes who are struggling to make a living.
The last of O’Casey’s ‘Dublin trilogy’ (following The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock), The Plough and the Stars is a grittily realistic portrait of working-class tenement life where everyone is on top of each other and there is little space for privacy.
The broadly comic presentation of people’s everyday petty squabbles and prejudices is undercut by a sense of social deprivation, while the knockabout farce is counterpointed by a growing sense of darkness as the violent uprising nears.
Strife is rife, as doomsaying Catholic charwoman Mrs Gogan (whose daughter is dying of tuberculosis) clashes with aggressive Protestant street fruit-vendor Bessie Burgess (whose son is fighting on the Western Front), and vainglorious nationalist Peter Flynn chases the mocking Marxist Young Covey.
While a demagogue stirs up the crowd outside with an inflammatory speech (based on some words by Patrick Pearse), inside a pub a prostitute fishes for business. As the street-fighting wages in the distance, locals loot the shell-blasted shops.
But at the core is a conflicted young couple. The pregnant Nora Clitheroe is desperate to prevent her husband Jack from taking up his duties as commandant in the Irish Citizen Army, passionately telling him that his responsibilities to his family should override any loyalty to a romanticised military republican cause.
Co-directed by Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin, this large-scale, stirring production makes full use of the Lyttelton’s revolving stage, even if at times it seems rather overwrought. Vicki Mortimer’s striking design features seedy slum dwellings ravaged by decay and warfare, with Paul Groothuis’s sound full of echoing gunfire and Vicki Mortimer’s lighting showing the setting sun rays slanting through the murky windows.
Very much an ensemble piece, the cast perform well. Judith Roddy’s Nora becomes increasingly distraught as she fails to persuade Fionn Walton’s stubbornly macho Jack to stay at home. Justine Mitchell’s Bessie softens from belligerence to compassion, and Josie Walker’s Mrs Grogan reveals great stoicism. Lloyd Hutchinson struts absurdly in a peacock uniform as Peter, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor plays the smug intellectual Covey, and Stephen Kennedy is the bombastic carpenter Fluther Good who sits out the rebellion in a drunken stupor.
Although not taking part in the Easter Rising himself, O’Casey had earlier been involved with the Irish Citizen Army (drafting their constitution) before falling out with them as he moved to a more socialist stance. The play’s title is a reference to their ‘Starry Plough’ flag. Here he is not attacking the rightness of the Irish freedom movement but debunking some of the mythologising that goes along with it. Away from the field of battle are bit-part players huddled on the sidelines awaiting the outcome with fear.
The Plough and the Stars is on at the Lyttelton, National Theatre until 22 October. Tickets are £15–£65. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 28 July 2016