THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The Plough and the Stars
By Sean O'Casey
The Abbey Theatre on tour at the Lyric Hammersmith
Until 7 April
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Sean Holmes, supremo of the Lyric Hammersmith, is a brave man. In 2016 he took on directing The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin for a special production to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, which it partly depicts. It's now arrived in Hammersmith and is a revelation. Gone is the preserved in aspic style of too many productions of this classic play and instead it has a whiff of Pina Bausch about it.
He blends historical detail with mostly modern dress so we get to see the Dublin working class of 2018, who don't differ much from their forebears of 1916. The piece has a raucous energy and when Cleary's department store is looted this lot return with the best Versace bling. A front curtain prelude sets the tone. The teenage consumptive Mollser launches into a full blooded 'Soldier's Song' (the Irish National Anthem) but it soon degenerates as she starts to cough up blood.
Holmes has aerated this play in very many ways and Jon Bausor's designs sensibly dispense with realism. They are sparse but perfectly judged and there's even a coup-de-theatre involving the central scaffold which acts as the staircase of this tenement house.
The play caused riots at its debut in 1926 because it dealt with the events of the Rising not from the perspective of the insurgents but rather from the Dublin slum dwellers, who remained largely aloof from it. Their diverse individuality challenged any notion that there was single working class response to the events. Instead O'Casey, ever the humanist and pacifist, painted these citizens with a mixture of sympathy and satire. They are quarrelsome, egotistical and disputatious but always ready with a quip.
The prostitute Rosie Redmond complaining about the pickings being poor on the night when men's thoughts were on higher things (Padraig Pearse's oration on the street outside) is emblematic of O'Casey's approach. Revolutions come and go but for the poor, getting though each day is their focus.
Holmes has a deft touch with comedy and here he has the characters frequently addressing the audience directly. These Dubs are always 'On', as you'll recognise if you've ever taken a Dublin taxi. Niall Buggy, taking the supporting role here, is hilarious as the befuddled old popinjay Uncle Peter dressed up in his toy soldier uniform which makes him the object of mockery by the firebrand young Marxist the Young Covey. Ciaran O'Brien as the Covey lights up every scene he is in. Phelim Drew's Fluther is a windbag but a humane one and Janet Moran makes Mrs Gogan, with her love of the ghoulish, a believably modern woman rather than the usual comic turn.
Then there's the central couple: the Clitheroes. Jack (Ian Lloyd Anderson) is a Captain in the working class Irish Citizens Army but his ambitious and devoted wife Nora (Kate Stanley Brennan) is driven by jealousy of his fighting to hide his call up papers. She's the O'Casey Everywoman railing against men and their wars. The key love scene between these two is usually played 'sweet', but the chemistry here is hot as they rollick on a sofa bed and engage in some comic karaoke.
The great irony in the play of course is that the fiercest opponent of The Rising, the Protestant Loyalist, Bessie Burgess, who has a son fighting in Flanders, is accidentally killed by a British soldier's stray bullet. A heavyweight part, Bessie is foul mouthed and cantankerous for most of the play but Hilda Fay finds the warmth and the wit underneath.
This production needs to be seen because Holmes has re-invigorated O'Casey's rowdy humour and has managed to successfully update it without losing any of its vitality or the mellifluously florid language which was also O'Casey's forte. It's an object lesson in how to dust off the cobwebs from a revered classic.