The Plough and the Stars

 

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

If O’Casey took an unflinching look at the new Irish State, the nation didn’t always return his clear gaze. Countless revivals have come to romanticise the penury of tenement Dublin, emphasising salty good humour over harsher struggles and softening the play’s intellectual qualities with accretions of sentimentality. With a refreshingly different ensemble – casting Abbey regulars against the grain and giving newcomers plum roles – director Jordan shows he knows how to make a classic feel invigorating again, but his method is to explore the play’s theatricality more deeply than its politics.

Tom Piper’s design is thus an indication of tenement Dublin, yet a more deliberate invocation of the stage. Housing facades are summoned on crinkled muslin backdrops with furnishings roughly evinced, while lighting designer Sinead McKenna opens with a single spotlight, trailing Joe Hanley’s bowler-hatted Fluther across the stage like an approaching vaudevillian.

This isn’t the dominant note of the production, but political rhetoric is similarly rendered as a performance – one that can intoxicate, convince or ring hollow. Hanley’s excellently judged Fluther and Frankie McCafferty’s nicely moithered Peter Flynn repeat snatches of nationalist oratory in the pub, lurching between the audience and the bar. The prostitute Rosie Redmond, whose original appearance was the catalyst for the riot, finds a different subversiveness in Kathy Rose O’Brien’s arresting performance, delivering her last bawdy song in a jaunty bowler hat upon a crumpled tricolour, like a show tune from Cabaret.

There remains a troubling tendency to make an aesthetic out of poverty, which lets O’Casey’s humour mute his quieter tragedies. Each fight, for instance, is played for laughs; the violence between Jack (Barry Ward) and Nora Clitheroe (Denise Gough) is downplayed; and the salience of Marxist sloganeer The Young Covey (a lively Laurence Kinlan) is diminished in banter.

The heart of the play, though, rests in Gabrielle Reidy’s compelling Bessie Burgess, the cantankerous British sympathiser whose revelatory compassion, like Fluther’s, offers a beacon in the moral chaos. If Nora and Jack’s tempestuous central relationship seems paler than the weather-beaten decency of Bessie, Fluther and Cathy Belton’s Mrs Gogan, causing the pace of later acts to slacken noticeably, it is because O’Casey worked best with the wider canvas of community.

Our inheritance is a play as stirring for its political scepticism as for its warm humanism, reminding us that the role of art is to challenge, not accept. It is also the debt this fine production owes to O’Casey, nudging his drama enough to eschew stifling reverence, honouring his vigilance and compassion to let the play breathe, laugh and seethe again. Until Sept 25