When it was first staged at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1926, Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars sparked riots because of its unheroic portrayal of a working-class community caught up in the Easter Rising, which had proclaimed an Irish Republic before being brutally repressed by the British Army ten years earlier. If O’Casey’s play took an irreverent view of a much mythologised historical conflict, then Sean Holmes’s modern-dress production (first seen two years ago at the Abbey to mark the Rising’s centenary) in turn refuses to show undue reverence to this classic of Irish drama.
The Plough and the Stars is a mordant, sideways look at Big Events happening just off-stage, seen from the perspective of ordinary Dubliners trembling on the fringes of the action. There is much broad comedy in the petty squabbling between the inebriated Protestant loyalist Bessie Burgess and the coarsely gossiping Catholic charwoman Mrs Gogan, and between Peter Flynn’s peacock Republican ex-soldier and The Young Covey’s provocative Marxist intellectual, as well as in the futile attempts of handyman Fluther Good to give up booze. Meanwhile, more seriously, Nora Clitheroe is desperately trying to stop her husband Jack from rejoining the Irish Citizen Army in their planned revolt against British colonialism.
In the second act, a prostitute struggles to ply her trade in a bar because most of the men are attending a political rally, and drunken fights break out. After the Rising has started, we see Bessie and Mrs Grogan fighting over a shopping trolley to use for looting bombed-out shops, while Fluther raids a pub. But the mood darkens as a wounded Republican soldier appears, and in the final act death makes a devastating impact on the community.
Holmes evidently wants to prevent the play becoming a museum piece dedicated to a specific episode in the past, however iconic, and to give it a new, general resonance for audiences today. His version is not just modern in terms of costume and set, but pushes O’Casey’s heightened realism into a more stylised expression than usual. The text itself is more or less intact, but the way it is presented makes it feel very different, with characters directly addressing the audience, colourful lighting changes and mic’d-up, cabaret-style songs.
All this does show the play in a fresh light, but Holmes’ production ultimately fails to convince despite a consistent directorial line. It’s true that poverty and sectarianism still abound in many places, but The Plough and the Stars is rooted in the social environment in which O’Casey was raised. Although its sardonic but humane voice still has much to say to us, transplanting it into another time doesn’t necessarily make it more relevant. The National Theatre’s more traditional production in 2016 was a powerfully persuasive experience that engaged the emotions in a way that this overly self-aware version doesn’t.
Holmes prologues the action with Mrs Grogan’s teenage daughter Mollser at a microphone trying to sing the Irish national anthem but being forced to stop as she is overcome by a coughing fit. We see bright red tubercular blood splattered on the music sheet. It’s a neat indication of the tragedy to come, tying together the personal and the political.
The knockabout humour is amusingly done, but overwhelms the pathos of the Clitheroes’ imperilled marriage and burgeoning family. Instead of hearing sound bites of the political speeches from just outside the bar, they are relayed on an imaginary TV screen switched on by remote – a clever idea but one that has a distancing effect, rather than making a cheek by jowl contrast between high-flown oratory and low-life vulgarity.
Jon Bausor’s uncluttered set of shoddy furniture, chipboard doors and graffiti-daubed fencing has a makeshift feel to it that suggests precariousness, but there isn’t much sense of people living on top of each other in a tenement. It is dominated by metal scaffolding, like the emergency staircase of a multi-storey building, which shifts between the four acts, and finally topples to create the attic room in which characters take dubious shelter as civilian housing becomes the target of army shelling and gunfire in the aftermath of the rebellion.
In a play that shows a divided community belatedly banding together, it is the female characters who come out of it the strongest. Hilda Fay’s irascible Bessie (whose beloved son is away fighting in the Great War) puts aside sectarian differences to support her neighbours, while Janet Moran’s loudmouthed Mrs Grogan learns the hard way not to be so judgemental. Kate Stanley Brennan’s Nora and Ian Lloyd Anderson’s Jack are a well-matched couple until torn apart through circumstance. And there is lively comic support from Phelim Drew as Fluther, Niall Buggy as Peter, and Ciarán O’Brien as The Young Covey (perhaps a self-portrait of the playwright as a young man).
O’Casey wrote the constitution of the Irish Citizen Army before falling out with his Republican comrades in 1914, so he did not himself take part in the Easter Rising. As a trade unionist, his overriding commitment was to socialism and workers’ rights rather than to nationalism or religious dogmatism. Which government was in power was less important to him than what they did for the plight of ordinary people living in appalling socio-economic conditions. He became disillusioned with what he saw as the romanticising rhetoric and flag-waving bravura of the rebels. And it was not their cause he was satirising, but the narrow, distorted vision of freedom it sometimes gave rise to.
The Plough and the Stars is at the Lyric Hammersmith until April 7th. For more details, click here.