A century on and Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and The Stars has never been more prescient, writes Mick McDonagh
It is now 2016 a hundred years since the dramatic events of the Easter Rising, that provided the backdrop to Sean O’Casey’s seminal play. This powerful production directed by Jeremy Herrin and Howard Davies is appropriately being staged by the National Theatre as part of the commemorations of the historic events that changed Irish History 100 years ago, staying faithful to the core socialist values and humanity of the original challenging text and bringing with it a relevance to the suffering of contemporary conflicts.
When all the commendable commemorations were being staged at Easter this year, led by President Michael Higgins, it was refreshing to note how far Irish history and culture had moved on to include recognition for all those caught up in those events, now recognising those innocents men and women and children from inner city Dublin who died, caught up in the action and also the 200,000 Irish men fighting in the British Army in the trenches of the Somme after Redmond’s call.
This was a far cry from the macho mythologised tone of the 1966 commemorations when nobody dared criticise the heroes of 1916. Indeed now the views of what might be called ‘revisionist’ historians and others like John Bruton, who have questioned the necessity of the Easter Rising, are widely embraced but still provoke passionate discussion.
This is a 100 years on so one can only imagine how courageous Sean O’Casey was when he wrote this provocative play as perhaps the country’s first ‘revisionist’ historian, when he subtly mocked the romantic notions and ‘blood sacrifice’ pure nationalism of Patrick Pearse.
He achieved this by setting his drama in the squalid depths of a tenement with almost an entire cast of ordinary working class people caught up in abject poverty. Is it any wonder that there was an organised ‘riot ‘ on the fourth night of the original 1926 Abbey Theatre production only 10 years after the Rising, when emotions were still raw.
This prompted WB Yeats to roar his contempt for the audience “You have disgraced yourself again. Is this to be an ever recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?”
The genius of Sean O’Casey had arrived, supported by an enlightened Lady Gregory, who helped him stage his trilogy of historic classic plays. After the reception of this play, to Ireland’s shame, the genius of O’Casey upped and left and he spent the rest of his life in England as an exile. The kernel of O’Casey’s genius was his profound socialist views that had caused him to be part of Connolly’s Citizen Army but later to fall out with them, as they seemed to become more nationalistic and less egalitarian.
He did not participate in the rising with his colleagues and was critical of Pearce and others. Unusually for the time O’Casey developed his drama based, not on masculine Romantic heroes or Military leaders but on the poor and underprivileged, reflecting the conflicts and the companionship of living crammed into those squalid overcrowded tenements the worst in Europe, when their world came crashing down on them as the British Gunboat (well fishing protection boat) the Helga battered the guts out of the GPO and the main street in Dublin, so close to their shattered homes.
Sitting in the comfort of the Lyttelton Theatre it is hard to imagine just how awful that poverty was but apart from denying us the unwashed smell, designer Viki Mortimer used the full revolving stage resources available to her to create an impressive evocation of life in a crumbling crowed Georgian once grand house. By the dramatic turns of the stage she placed the play in the context of the street’s proximity to the fighting and looting or by taking us to the interior of a typical Dublin inner city pub.
Perhaps a little over blown but it worked really well to stage this production as an example of the National Theatre at its best.
This was a true quality ensemble production reflecting the emotions, tragic vulnerabilities and humour of these unfortunate people, played with superb acting from all involved so maybe it is unfair to single out anybody for particular mention.
However, as most of the drama is focused on the emotions and sad decline of Nora Clitheroe, Judith Roddy gives us a deeply moving nuanced performance of a woman who wants her husband to choose her over his notions of a dreamers cause of Irish Nationalism.
Bessie, the ‘auld orange bitch’ from upstairs with a son in the British Army, is played, by Justine Mitchel who, grappling with the clever garrulous O’Casey dialogue, swings from brutal aggression and British patriotism to moving sensitivity to her neighbour. That finally is her undoing.
Fion Walton (Jack), Lloyd Hutchinson (Peter), Tom Vaugan- Lawlor (Covey) and Stephen Kennedy (Fluther) are all excellent in portraying with humour the contradictions of their absurd bravado and posturing but ultimately their total fear with an understandable desire to survive the carnage and have no part dying for Ireland as part of a blood sacrifice.
This excellent production holds the attention from beginning to end, especially at the denouement, with the shocking Shakespearian dispatch of Bessie and the genius of the closing moments with the British Squaddies singing, in this year of the anniversary of the battle of the Somme, a timely unaccompanied version of “Keep the home fires burning”.
This was the genius of O’Casey’s playwriting skills at his peak and this production is one of the best I have ever seen at the National.
All should be proud to have done justice to his important play in this special year, which could have relevance now in Aleppo or Damascus as well as Dublin. Not to be missed.
Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and The Stars at the Lyttelton Theatre, NT South Bank until 22 October.