The Plough and the Stars


The Abbey at O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin

YOU COULD argue that, for the best part of a century, it has been easier to attend a production of The Plough and the Stars than to truly see it. Such are the distractions that a classic attracts, even one as scabrous and sceptical as Seán O’Casey’s tenement-level view of the events of the 1916 Rising. It may have provoked riot in 1926, when the foundations of a nation were fresh and fragile, but the play too became so sanctified by regular revival that its more recent controversies have involved productions that dared to consider it anew.

Director Wayne Jordan took a different approach for his 2010 production for the Abbey, by recognising a dual inheritance: the contested idea of a nation at a time when it could again harden or be reshaped, and the place of theatre to confront it.

Now revived for an Irish and UK tour, the production has become more persuasive and clear sighted in its handling of those twin impulses, vividly realised in its opening moments. Joe Hanley’s magnetic Fluther appears in a vaudevillian spotlight on a stage trimmed with a red curtain and antique footlights, while designer Tom Piper roughly summons his Dublin locations with photographic backdrops against exposed steel girders. Everything is built up in front of us.

It’s a sparing and liberating approach, foregrounding its theatricality with greater purpose. O’Casey’s play is thick with speech: the Dublin demotic of Fluther and Deirdre Molloy’s expertly garrulous Mrs Grogan, the parodic Marxist slogans of Laurence Kinlan’s excellent the Young Covey, or the evangelistically violent rhetoric of Karl Quinn’s Figure in the Window (who here strides directly upon the bar).

Peeling the play back to something unsentimental and direct restores an invigorating clarity to the characters and circumstances, and this ensemble makes it clear behind personal responsibility, revolution or persuasive performance there must be a cause.

That understanding puts real mettle in Kelly Campbell’s Nora Clitheroe, whose love for her husband eclipses the romantic nationalism of Barry Ward’s Jack. The tragedy of the play is that both are ruinous causes. It’s still O’Casey’s burning compassion for people in the margins of history that illuminates this production, where bar room banter and Kate Brennan’s desperate prostitute Rosie undercut the exhortations towards “cleansing” bloodshed.

One consequence of leaving the play exposed is that the point becomes hectoring at length, yet the later acts become more moving. Through quiet acts of heroism in difficult circumstances from Fluther and the revelatory Gabrielle Reidy as Bessie Burgess, the production honours O’Casey’s fundamental belief in community and, deftly and sincerely, presents us with the restorative fabric of a nation.

Until Sept 15 then touring