They don't make them like this any more. Sitting at the back of the Abbey's rehearsal space is what I take to be one of the theatre's most famed props: the pram used in the Abbey's first production of The Plough and the Stars, in 1926, and which is said to have featured in every production since. At least, that's the story. In truth, the Victorian original was retired in 1999 and replaced with this replica, but it is tempting to seek direct connections to the past.
You could say the same about Sean O'Casey's play, a steely view of community, blood and chaos during the 1916 Rising, as seen from street level, which audiences in the fledgling Free State met with fury. It has since proved to be the most popular and frequently revived play in the Abbey's repertoire, accruing a familiarity that can work against it. As a critical internal report put it a few years ago, "O'Casey is what the Abbey should do best, and not what it should just do often."
Barely four years since it was last staged – and toured – by the National Theatre, does a play this well-known have anything left to reveal?
It comes as some surprise, during an afternoon run-through of act three, to see the classic pram now piled high with XBoxes, iPhones and other spoils of rebellion. As other anachronisms abound, the play seems to have strayed into today.
The director, Seán Holmes, artistic director of London’s Lyric Hammersmith, surveys the scene intently, quick on his feet to discuss the finer points of a sound effect – “Those gunshots need to be British,” he says, distinguishing between one volley and another – or maintaining a fascinating tone, close to photorealism. “Obviously we’ve got a visitor today,” he tells the cast. “But don’t do your best acting. Just do the stage we’re at.”
Build of a bouncer
Holmes, who grew up in Surrey and has the imposing build of a bouncer, has an entirely unpretentious manner, which is reflected in the performance style. O’Casey’s Dublin argot, written in the author’s fastidious phonetics, can become overblown in performance, spinning like the Young Covey’s “mollycewells an’ atoms”.
Here, voices seem closer to the 21st century, delivered without a trace of melodrama. As Kate Stanley Brennan's Nora pleads intimately with Ian Lloyd Anderson's Jack to desert the uprising and return home, or Peter Ganly gives Fluther the desperation and meanness of a worrying alcoholic, or Eileen Walsh's contrarian unionist Bessie gloats "Yous are all nicely shanghaied now", the drama seems stripped of exclamation marks.
But the effect is still theatrical: when Fluther returns, surly and bawling over the contents of a raided bar, Ganly grabs a microphone and engages his audience in a rasping song, like a drunk accosting passengers on a bus: “Fluther’s a jolly good fella.”
The idea, as Holmes explains it, is to make this staging of The Plough more presentational. "We acknowledge the audience a lot. And talk to them. Because I think that the play lends itself to that. It's an odd mixture, a sort of presentation of reality as opposed to a facsimile. You're really aware, all of the time, that you're watching a play."
Holmes, who directed Richard Dormer’s gangster drama
at the Abbey in 2013, comes to
The Plough and the Stars
with fresh eyes. “I’ve never seen this play on stage before. I haven’t grown up with it. I had to discover it in the room.”
Indeed, he often talks about O’Casey as though he is a new writer. “The way he veers between tragedy, farce, mundanity, comedy, it’s really, really skilful.”
Any commemorative impetus behind staging the play was not “a good enough reason” as he sees it. “As a director, over and above that, I have to discover a reason to do the play. And that is to find a contemporary resonance.”
It helps that he sees the play as “an argument with Ireland . . . This play is as much about 1926 as it was about 1916. It was an argument with the new state and the betrayal of the promise, as O’Casey saw it, of what the [Plough and the Stars] flag represented for an alternative type of state.
“Obviously, I’m a bit nervous about doing this play at this time, not being from this country. But the more I hear people talking about it, I think actually everybody’s got a different opinion about 1916: you can project anything on to it. O’Casey was reacting against an oversimplification and a mythicisation of a very complicated, messy and contradictory event. So what you put on stage is all of those things: ideas of nationalism, the complexity of the continued relationship with Britain, the relationship with gender. All those things remain contemporary.”
Holmes's focus as a theatre-maker has undergone its own revolutions. After graduating from York University, he began his career with a reverence towards text, particularly the "Angry Young Men" of British theatre such as John Osborne, Joe Orton and Edward Bond, writers, he once approved, who were "not trying to please".
A decade ago, however, his text-centred approach became tempered by methods of devising, winning an Olivier award for his staging of Sarah Kane's Blasted in 2011. One stand-out show of his tenure at the Lyric so far, which he joined seven years ago, was Simon Stephens's play Three Kingdoms, directed by German Sebastian Nübling and designed by Estonian Ene-Liis Semper, whose postdramatic vigour alienated established critics while winning over a new generation.
For Plough, those inclinations towards textual fidelity and theatrical experiment might have to meet each other halfway. "What I hope is that we're absolutely true to the spirit of the writing," says Holmes. "But a reverence for the letter of the play doesn't release the spirit of the play."
In 2013, in London, Holmes made an appropriately radical proclamation. “Maybe the existing structures of theatre in this country, while not corrupt, are corrupting,” he said.
This came with the announcement of a grand idea, while the Lyric underwent a three-year refurbishment, called Secret Theatre. Creating a stridently diverse ensemble of actors with various backgrounds, ethnicities and abilities, Secret Theatre pursued a programme of classic works, new plays and devised pieces, none of which were advertised in advance. You came with as few expectations as possible.
Holmes recalls how one of their first projects, A Streetcar Named Desire, which included an actress with one arm as Blanche and a black Stella, had to sidestep traditional interpretations. "In that version, everyone just used their own voices, which I thought liberated the language of Tennessee Williams from the tyranny of having to pretend you're in 1947."
Holmes doesn’t quite see Secret Theatre, a mixed success, as having disrupted the status quo: “These little ants threw themselves against the granite cliffs of British theatre and bounced off again.” But it was part of a new emphasis in British performance. “It was about acting. It was about finding a way to liberate actors to be creative artists in a way they often don’t have the opportunity to be.”
A similar idea is at play in his approach to Plough, for which the company – not hugely diverse, but far from homogenous – are encouraged to be as much themselves as their characters. Holmes is not interested in "doing it for some adolescent wish to wind everyone up. That would be a mistake. We're absolutely doing the play, but it's filtered through my own aesthetic, and through the team. So I don't know what people are going to think. They might get very, very cross that some English bloke has come over and desecrated a classic."
Holmes, whose grandfather was Irish, “was a little bit nervous when it was announced I was doing it. And then, of course, nobody gave a toss about my nationality. All anyone was rightly exercised about was gender. What turned out to be more interesting is that the society is in a very different place. People’s concerns are about other things.”
The Plough and the Stars is at the Abbey Theatre until April 23rd