Thursday, 28 July 2016

Review The Plough And The Stars

The Plough And The Stars
by Seán O'Casey

A Terrible Beauty 

What a strange and devastating play, Seán O'Casey's The Plough And The Stars turned out to be. Turned out, because TLT and her own little theatre patriot did not know the piece and for three quarters of this drama, played out against the background of the run up to and during the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin against British rule, they did wonder where it was going. 

And then came an event that put everything into a terrible perspective and made us go over and re-evaluate what had gone before and why. The production at the Lyttleton Theatre, co-directed by Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin, is not perfect but it does the business effectively.  

The Plough and The Stars is the flag first used by the Irish Citizen Army 12 years before the Easter uprising, O'Casey was born John Casey of Protestant working class stock  and was once a member before disillusionment at the abandonment of a more global socialist cause. 

The play was first produced in 1926 amid controversy and riots at the Abbey Theatre, where it was staunchly defended by Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats,who had self-censored his own poem on the Rising, only privately circulating it, "All changed, changed utterly/A terrible beauty is born."

For feelings and politics were still raw and O'Casey's play touches on events many setting up the new Irish state  would rather have had forgotten. The drama is set squarely amongst the working class, many of whom were on the breadline and barely surviving in the Dublin tenements, once the homes of rich Georgian merchants under British imperial rule, now run-down multi-occupancy buildings. Many of these tenants, if not content, had enough to deal with without disturbing the status quo of  prospective Home Rule.

Living there are the charwoman Mrs Gogan (Josie Walker) with her dying consumptive daughter Mollser (Róisín O’Neill)Mrs Gogan whom we first encounter as she chances upon the delivery to young bride Nora Clitheroe (Judith Roddy) of a fashionable hat which the char takes as a sign of the younger woman's snobbery and spendthrift ways. 

It is in fact a gift from Nora's husband, bricklayer Jack (Fionn Walton), far more deserving of Mrs Gogan's condemnation as he sulks for being passed over, he believes, for promotion within the Citizen Army and fails to understand the savagery and danger of the call to arms

Nora's elderly labourer uncle Peter (Lloyd Hutchinson) preens himself in a ceremonial uniform and  Covey (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a young cousin, buttonholes anyone he can with worthy socialist sentiments without possessing the charm or wit to convert those around him who are either scraping a living or swept up by divisive nationalist sentiment.  

Protestant neighbour Bessie Burgess (Justine Mitchell), whose son is away fighting for the British in the First World War, brawls with Mrs Gogan in the local pub while from the window we see the shadowy outline of the speechifying political leader exalting the blood letting in the global conflict  in a crescendo of words, a means of rousing Dublin men to fight British rule. 

There's a certain inpenetrability to some of the accents in the first part of the play but the characters still hold. In many ways, they are stock types. Look there, and there's Orphelia and isn't there even a touch of the Leopold Bloom in Fluther Good (Stephen Kennedy), the carpenter who fixes doors and helps arrange funerals.  

At the same time, there's something profound about how the characters merge into  literary types as if we can see the sordid realities of history turned into the myths of the forthcoming Irish nation before our eyes, yet then we go backwards behind the myths as  the play ends with shattered buildings and bodies.

For it's not just that Mrs Gogan and Bessie Burgess come together, using a baby's pram to loot the shops in the chaos of the Uprising. Or the unfurling of the starry plough flag in the ignoble surroundings of the pub while prostitute Rosie (Gráinne Keenan) and carpenter Fluther carouse as the bloodthirsty speeches continue outside. 

When Bessie yells "We've all been Shanghai'ed", O'Casey is looking back from 1926 when a year before police fired on Chinese workers in a labour movement protes against imperialism in the international compound of the Chinese city. 

Evocative revolving sets from designer Vicki Mortimer give physical embodiment to  the claustrophobia of eavesdropping neighbours and events both in 1916 and in the 1920s. So it's a green light for an angry play which cannot offer any solutions yet resonates with the tiny acts of solidarity amidst  treachery and bloodshed.      

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