I last saw The Plough and the Stars in 2010, at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, directed by Wayne Jordan. In this, the centenary year of the Easter Rising, the play looks and feels remarkably similar. A satire which was written to directly address those who romanticised the actions and the sacrifice of the self-proclaimed Provisional Government of the Irish Republic, it is not a play which glosses itself for an unfamiliar audience.
It does not tell the story of the different groups that joined together to declare Irish Independence (although Sean O’Casey was involved in and all too familiar with those machinations), the story of the doomed General Post Office occupation, or the betrayal of gun-runner Roger Casement. It is the story of broadly stereotypical poor Irish characters who are hurt, softened, complicated and brought together as their city becomes the victim of both Irish revolutionary zeal and the brute force of the British Army. It is the tragedy of those who are devalued in any and every conflict – the poor, the sick, the immobile.
Vicki Mortimer’s design is impressive, creating the four distinct scenes which begin in a world of poverty during a period of relative stability and move to scenes of poverty in disorder and martial law, like a 1910s Blasted. Each of these big scenes have complex demands built into the text, which Mortimer attacks with revolves, wheeled platforms and flown scenery for a picture-perfect result. Yet unfortunately in all but the first scene the staging forces every actor into a straight line across the front of the stage. On the Lyttleton stage, the tenement buildings and the bar feel impossibly expansive. The scene set on the stoop of the tenement, as British artillery bombards Dublin during the Rising itself, is intense and evocative, with gunshots zipping around the heads of the bewildered, scared and occasionally looting residents.
Ultimately it’s a frustrating piece of programming from the National Theatre, appropriate rather than motivated, as without an audience that has an emotional response to the Easter Rising the play’s best work is not being effectively done. The play never lifts its eye from those that are most at the whim of conflict, whose agency is all in self-preservation. But the production itself does not seem to go looking for this interpretation, or have more to add. It comes into its own in the second half, but the tough opening scenes drag, and the difficult central turn of Nora Clitheroe flounders as Judith Roddy and Fionn Walton (Jack Clitheroe) fail to engage us in the first scene, and so Nora’s desperate sadness and madness, the soul and poetry of the play, ring melodramatic rather than melancholic.
The Plough and the Stars shows at the National Theatre until 22nd October 2016. Click here for more information.