The Plough and the Stars review: The poverty of our era put centre stage

The Abbey’s latest production of Sean O’Casey’s Easter Rising drama brings his characters into the light of the present. During the centenary of the event, has it made a familiar play any more illuminating?

Ian Lloyd Anderson (Jack Clitheroe) and Kate Stanley Brennan (Nora Clitheroe) in The Plough and the Stars. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Ian Lloyd Anderson (Jack Clitheroe) and Kate Stanley Brennan (Nora Clitheroe) in The Plough and the Stars. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

The Plough and the Stars

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

***

Asked for his assessment of the French Revolution, 200 years after the event, the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai famously responded: “It is too early to say.”

Something like that long view of history informs the Abbey’s latest production of The Plough and the Stars, dutifully staged during the centenary of the Rising, which tries to fathom the place of 1916 in today’s nation by bringing Sean O’Casey’s characters blinking into the light of the present.

In director Sean Holmes’s vigorous, pacey staging, this involves an intermingling of periods rather than an update. The words are O’Casey’s, but delivered in voices closer to our own. Catherine Fay’s costumes are largely contemporary, with the past gradually seeping in. This has the stealthy effect of creating – as one character puts it – “a fierce an’ fanciful idea that dead things are livin’ and livin’ things are dead”.

If this production’s aesthetic impoverished, it’s the poverty of our era. Jon Bausor’s set indicates a tenement through rising scaffolding and hoarding, the Clitheroe home scraped together in bargain furnishings. Paul Keogan’s lighting favours harsh fluorescents – even as footlights – while a Plough constellation is emblazoned on the rear wall in glittering practical lights.

With such self-awareness, Holmes borrows liberally from epic theatre (every declamatory statement comes in direct address) while also reaching for brash postdramatic devices: songs are pumped through microphones, the stage becomes strewn with trash.

It is not a combination that encourages subtlety, which feels as much like a comment on the play as the deprivations of the present nation. The show opens, for instance, with Mahnoor Saad’s consumptive Mollser coughing up blood over a copy of Amhrán na bhFiann. Nationalism, it suggests, is a shaky performance. When Uncle Peter (James Hayes) dons his military regalia, or Ian Lloyd Anderson’s nicely judged Jack changes into his Citizen’s Army uniform, they seem like people being absorbed into either history or fiction, a sensation increased by the bloody rhetoric of revolution, here broadcast on a bar-room television.

The performance of the play though, particularly the first half, errs on the side of broader comedy. As the Young Covey, Ciarán O’Brien’s blowhard taunting invites it, but Jack’s serenade is similarly treated as goofy foreplay, and the bar scene spins with cartoonish oustings – as though irony might cover any cracks of uncertainty. The performances are more thoroughly reasoned, such as Janet Moran’s nicely salty Mrs Gogan, David Ganly’s Fluther – balanced between a good-natured charlatan and a desperately mean drunk, cajoling the audience – or Kate Stanley Brennan’s courageous Nora, whom she gives an earthy, deep-toned realism.

The most illuminating performance belongs to Eileen Walsh, whose low-lidded, demolished Bessie, gives the cantankerous unionist a still grimmer tragedy, numbing herself with booze, or something stronger. Through the latter half of the performance, which accrues enough gravity to finally topple the set, Bessie’s quiet heroism in this time of postures and grubby consequence still provides the moral spine. Holmes is more alert to that detail of performance – the storytelling assisted in immediate, clear gestures – than the staging concept, which resolves itself with a flag motif. What these banners and their relationships mean – the Plough and the Stars, the Union Jack, the Irish Tricolour – is forever shifting. But it’s early days yet.

Runs until April 23rd