Sean Holmes, boss of Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre, talks about 1916 and Sean O’Casey to Michael McDonagh
Following its sell-out season at The Abbey Theatre in 2016 as part of the 100th anniversary celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising, and a successful Irish and US tour, The Plough and the Stars, comes to the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith this week, as a co-production with the Abbey Theatre.
How did your 1916 centenary production come about?
“The Abbey had done 57 productions of The Plough and The Stars in the 90 years since it was written. So it asked me to direct a new production for Easter 2016. Although my name is Sean, and I am little bit Irish, I am English with a connection and knowledge of Ireland but they were after somebody taking a fresh look at the play that everybody is very familiar with. I think we managed to do that. A thing I am most proud of with this production is that we managed to stay really true to the spirit of O’Casey’s play and that we really had all the energy and contradictions and charge of that play but we don’t stick to the letter of it. We tried to make it exist in a world that would relate to a contemporary Ireland rather than set it in 1916 and that was a risk particularly with an audience at that time and it was not to everyone’s taste but I think it was a big popular success, as the people who came were really seeing the play again.”
By re-imagining it in a tower block are you trying to draw a younger audience and do you think the play is as relevant as when O Casey wrote it?
“It is sort of like that but what it important when we set it in contemporary Dublin in 2016 was that did not just transpose it with people on mobile phones and things like that but that it is an imagined theatrical world. I had not realised until I started working on the play what a brilliant playwright he is and how fundamentally he understood the range of possibilities of theatre.
We did something that is quite formative and where there is a lot of audience addressed and where you are under no illusion that this is a play you are watching, not a slight at naturalism, if that makes sense. One of the ways that we did that is in what O’Casey is writing about, which is a very Irish response to oppression, imperialism and poverty, to set off dramatisation.
So many characters, particularly the male characters, talk about themselves in the third person and many of the male characters in the play adopt a uniform, whether that is a soldier, the forester or whatever it might be. What I think O’- Casey is honing in on is this performative aspect and self-dramatisation of the characters in response to poverty and oppression. At the same time, and it is very important to me, one of the main characters is ‘Mollser’ the young girl who is dying of TB and though she is not a big part she is around a lot but everyone just ignores her.
I think what he is writing about is a critique from the position of ten years after The Rising, where he is viewing the Independent Free State, where he is saying look there is all this rhetoric and bluster about independence, heroism and nationalism and all this stuff but at the same time children are still dying in poverty from preventable diseases.”
When I reviewed the National Theatre production of the play for the Irish World I suggested that O’Casey with this important play might have been the first revisionist historian do you think that is correct.
“Well I think that is right because like all good playwrights you react against simplification of narratives and he was doing that back then and there is a line in the play when Norah says ‘No woman gives up her husband or son for death and if she does say that she is a liar’ and I think that is probably where the riot came in. That was where all the widows and the mothers of the dead leaders of The Rising came. I was there rehearsing at the time the Centenary Commemorations were starting and I was nervous and I did a lot of research, and I thought all I have to do is present O’Casey’s vision and his critique of the events. What he was saying was this is a big, messy, complicated, violent, brave, cowardly, bloody complicated event and there was looting and he presented these things on stage. The job of any production is to put all those confusions and contradictions on stage and what he was angry about was that people were still living in those conditions now that Ireland was an independent country and those things needed to be addressed. He was writing from the point of view of a socialist.”
The play was groundbreaking and shocking when first performed at the Abbey within a few years of Easter Week. Is it still relevant now?
“The other interesting thing about it, and I noticed this when I was there, was that everybody I talked to had a different opinion about The Rising and that simplification of history is wrong but what was easier for me in the context of doing it in 2016 because of that plethora of revisionist opinions or revisionist readings of that event (as opposed to the tone of 1966). I think it was important that I find a way of presenting the play to speak to a contemporary audience, so we would not have women in shawls with dirt on their faces. The problem now is that if you put it in a Georgian tenement it is very fashionable now to live in places with bare bricks and boards and the signifiers don’t exist in the same way anymore. In our production the furniture is more like that in a bed-sit and there is a metal scaffolding tower that kind of represents the tenement in a more abstracted way.”
As Hammersmith is not far from the Grenfell Tower disaster, is there was any significance in the play being staged here?
“We staged the play before that happened but it is interesting that the pressures of poverty disempowerment and neglect and the like don’t just happen in Ireland but I would be very wary. If somebody wants to see parallels they can but that was not our intention.”
Did you get much flak for your approach to the work and for changing the original setting?
“We got less criticism than I anticipated for our production and reimagining of the O’- Casey play but the actors who were Irish were all happy and supportive and believed in what we were doing and the response from the audience was great. It was full every night because of that event. Dublin is not full of Guardian readers but it was the ordinary people of Dublin that came out to see the play and enjoyed it. You could say it was a left-wing, challenging production but the play released all the humour, fun and theatricality of O’Casey and the people really really responded to it. It toured Ireland as well and it went down well all around the country as well as in the States
Did you feel nervous about doing it for Easter 2016?
“Well I did especially when I began but when I read about The Rising and saw stuff on TV I realised that everybody had differing opinions and that reassured me that my job was to put on O’Casey’s provocations on stage and also that it felt really right. Crudely, I run a theatre, the Lyric Hammersmith and THAT’S pressure as I open a show and have to come in every day. Whereas there I was asked to put on a show and, of course, I cared about it and wanted it to be a success for everybody involved and for the Abbey but in a curious way it was an absence of pressure. I was just doing a show and doing what you believe and it was vindicated from the first preview and the audience reaction. There was a synthesis between honouring the play and letting it fly but also to allow people to see it in a new way and strip away all the ideas about it remove some of those preconceptions and I believe the play came alive.”
Ireland has changed a lot even since 1966 so how did you find it now?
“I had an interesting thing. I was over in 2015 doing some research and I was in the audience at a play at The Abbey and Michael D Higgins, the President, spoke about a book which The Abbey had put out, which I think was called The Handbook Of The Irish Revival, about all the plays they had done and the revival of Irish nationalism and culture and Yeats and other voices. He spoke for about an hour and it was really interesting being British in that audience as these people were citizens in a discussion about these things with their Head of State and for all the historical reasons you would understand I realised that my Head of State would never have such a discussion or conversation. It would never happen and it reminded me how young a country it is and how so much is so open, at least in theory, for discussion.”
Would a new, provocative play staged in Ireland today cause a riot as the original did?
“I think it is hard to say, any society is capable of that, but clearly it has changed and it is a more open and a freer society and the influence and control of the Church has gone and there is a big embrace of being European. That has facilitated and made the whole peace process situation in the North possible but like anywhere there may be still issues that upset people.”
Have Weinstein, Casey and #MeToo made a difference to directing theatre?
“It does not make directing harder, it only makes it harder if you are one of those people. I think the whole thing is right and it is about power, and abuse of power, like in the play. That’s what this play is about, who has the power and who will get hurt.”
Is this the original cast from Dublin?
“The cast is a mixture, about half is the original cast, some were not available so we recast and now have the perfect mixture because to start from scratch would have been a bit tiring but to have people who are new to it stops it being inert and, of course, people bring different interpretations of their characters with an injection of new blood and ideas.”
For tickets go to: lyric.co.uk/shows/plough-and-the-stars