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DruidO’Casey: A brilliant ensemble cast brings Garry Hynes’ vision to life in back-to-back productions

Galway International Arts Festival: Seán O’Casey’s Plough and the Stars, Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock follow Druid’s Synge, Murphy and Shakespeare cycles


Town Hall Theatre, Galway

Of the many marathon performance projects that Druid has embarked on over the years – DruidSynge in 2005, DruidMurphy in 2012, DruidShakespeare in 2015 – its new production of Seán O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy makes the most formal sense. The plays work naturally as a unit, offering a tripartite glimpse of the bloody birth of the Irish nation. O’Casey’s vision is a bottom-up one where politics and violence are largely kept offstage. Instead we witness the more urgent dramas affecting the working classes: poverty, unemployment, sickness, hunger and, with women for the most part the sacrificial victims of the emerging Free State, unplanned pregnancy.

Garry Hynes, the production’s director, also has a personal score to settle with one of the works. In 1991 she produced a controversial stripped-back production of The Plough and the Stars, the first play in the trilogy, at the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Letters to this newspaper complained about the director’s disregard for O’Casey’s trademark realism. “How far can one dispose of the author’s stage directions?” one correspondent asked.

He would be relieved to discover that, as the curtain rises at the Town Hall Theatre to reveal Francis O’Connor’s meticulously detailed set, Nora and Jack Clitheroe’s crowded flat is fully furnished with all the trinkets that an upwardly mobile young wife in the 1900s might yearn for. The curtain itself, however – a wooden frame like a coffin lid or an execution wall – suggests that Hynes’ vision of the plays, offered in back-to-back episodes by a brilliant ensemble cast, is not limited by the realistic detail of O’Casey’s classic works.

The Plough and the Stars is the first in the dramatic chronology of the trio, but it was actually the last of the works to be written and performed. As a result it is the most formally ambitious and challenging of the plays. It is also the most satisfying. Set in 1915 and 1916, it unfolds over four acts, shifting location from public to private spaces in each act. There is human drama – the Clitheroes’ foundering marriage, Mollser Gogan’s consumptive sickness – but also plenty of direct political talk, if not action: the speechifying of the Easter Rising’s leader, which takes place offstage; the constant proselytising of the Covey (Marty Rea); the anti-republican tirades of Bessie Burgess (Hilda Fay).


The density of the dialogue is offset by physical humour and knockabout comedy – courtesy of Aaron Monaghan’s Fluther Good and Bosco Hogan’s Uncle Peter – as well as music-hall riffs, which Conor Linehan’s clever score exploits for scene-setting effect throughout the trilogy. By the final act, however, Hynes has largely emptied the stage of fussy domestic furnishings, the better to narrow our gaze for the play’s final tragedy, the culmination of a series of commonplace horrors that remain shocking. Hynes stages the scene in front of a window at the centre of the mostly empty stage, framing the death of the most humble of the play’s characters as the victim most worthy of note.

O’Connor reconfigures the scenery for The Shadow of a Gunman, which is set in a tenement flat in 1920, at the tail end of the Anglo-Irish War. Seumas Shields (Rory Nolan) and Donal Davoren (Marty Rea) are jaded by politics, preferring to sleep through the action happening outside their window, in the case of Shields, and to write romantic poetry, in the case of Davoren. The poverty is tangible in these rooms, but Minnie Powell (Caitríona Ennis) brings a sense of possibility when she comes to visit Davoren, whom she wrongly suspects is a gunman on the run.

This is the weakest play in the trilogy. The dialogue is leaden, the plot is underwritten and the minor characters are caricatures. Hynes cleverly uses comedy as a compensation for its flaws, however, and Nolan, warming up for his role as the strutting showman Captain Jack Boyle in Juno and the Paycock, leads the comic charge. But O’Connor’s design, which cracks open as the culminating drama comes to a head, ensures we never lose sight of its gravity.

In Juno and the Paycock, O’Casey’s dramatic focus has narrowed even more. This is a domestic tragedy set against the backdrop of the Civil War. Comrades are at war with each other, but Juno (Fay) and the other mothers of Ireland couldn’t give a fig for the fighting. They want to know who will bury their sons, employ their husbands, provide shelter to their daughters when they are abandoned by their men: Ireland is not greater than a mother. O’Casey finds plenty of comedy here, too, courtesy of the double act of Captain Boyle and Joxer Daly (played by Monaghan), but in Hynes’ astute rendering the laughter sounds a more desperate, sober note.

This is especially notable in the final scene, where Hynes uses the wooden wall of O’Connor’s curtain to bring our attention back to the very opening moments of The Plough and the Stars. What it reveals for the very last scene, meanwhile, brings our attention back to Hynes’ controversial 1991 production. The stage has been entirely emptied out, so that Juno and her daughter, Mary (Zara Devlin), are figures suspended in blackness: the limbo, the purgatory, of an unknown future. A door in the centre of the floor suggests an invitation to departure, but, once they leave, the Captain and Joxer step inside, roaring drunk and incomprehensible, victims of their own making. We remember them in an earlier scene, contemplating their own place in the vastness of the world: “What is the stars?” The question we ask of them is, “What is a man?”

DruidO’Casey continues at the Town Hall Theatre, as part of Galway International Arts Festival, until Sunday, July 30th; the run is sold out. It is then at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, from Saturday, August 5th, until Saturday, August 19th; and at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, from Saturday, August 26th, until Saturday, September 16th

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer