The Plough and the Stars
Lyric Hammersmith, 26th March 2018
One way or another I see a fair amount of theatre. Making up for lost time I guess. Anyway this requires a reasonable degree of organisation. Nothing a small child couldn’t cope with but I do need to be on top of the diary. Very occasionally there is a system error. I say system. Obviously it’s my stupidity. One casualty was the National Theatre’s revival of The Plough and the Stars in summer 2016. It never got into the diary, I failed to check the fail-safe lists and ended up in Sicily en famille before I realised the mistake. Reviews weren’t great, Sicily was, (even if we found ourselves once again on top of a very steep hill despite strict instructions to the booker, me, to avoid this). And I had only paid £15 for the ticket thanks to that nice Mr Dorfman who uses his Travelex fortune to support the NT. Even so it irked me. Still does. It’s always the little things isn’t it?
Anyway that meant postponing my first exposure to the renowned Irish playwright Sean O’Casey until this production, That’s right. No Juno and the Paycock or The Silver Tassie yet, (though I am signed up for the concert performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera based on the latter at the Barbican in November).
So I have some catching up to do. First impressions? Well I can see why Mr O’Casey’s work might divide opinion. The mixture of trenchant politics, (all sides come in for a walloping from socialist SO’C), comedy filtered through working class Dublin lives that, with hindsight, teeters perilously close to Oirish cliche, and melodramatic tragedy, takes a bit of getting used to. I see from Michael Billington’s review of the 2016 NT production that it took him a bit of time to get into the swing of things that time round. Same thing happened to me in this production. I also, shamefacedly, have to admit my ears had to adjust a bit to the vernacular accents on display, the drift of SO’C’s prose. Yet once it all got going, and subsequently having thought about, and done a bit more work on, the play, I am starting to see where the advocates of SO’C are coming from. (The programme contains a pair of fine articles on the way in which the Easter Rising, and women’s role in Irish independence, have been interpreted over the years). If it is good enough for the mighty Mr Billington, who should be knighted and canonised for his services to the theatre illiterati like me, then it is good enough for me to sit up and take notice.
This production in its original “anniversary” incarnation at the Abbey Theatre Dublin has a very fine Irish cast which has been brought over to West London largely intact. Now it wouldn’t be Sean Holmes, (don’t be deceived by the name – he’s English), as director if there wasn’t a bit of “auteristic” subversion instituted into proceedings and so it is here. Jon Bauser’s set is low budget but ingenious with scaffolding creating the Dublin tenements, or maybe now tower blocks, and graffitied plywood standing as walls. A fair amount of cheap (I assume) lager spills out on to the stage. Paul Keogan’s lighting is similarly severe. Catherine Fay’s costume design is resolutely modern-day, particularly striking when the British soldiers first appear. This means that the setting, 1916 Dublin at the time of the Easter Rising, can echo across subsequent years in the island of Ireland. I see the point. Patriotism, whether derived from a line on a map or a different shade of god, is an ugly f*cker. And it’s always the least advantaged that lost the most.
The everyday humour which fuels the first act in the living room of the Clitheroe’s flat, and in the pub in the second act, is confidently delivered. Remember this is November 1915, the Nationalists including the trade unionist Irish Citizens Army, are organising. The relationship between Ian Lloyd Anderson’s Jack and Kate Stanley Brennan’s Nora is believably tender, and then strained, when Jack is re-recruited to the cause despite Nora’s desperate intervention. On the other hand whilst individually, Niall Buggy’s buffoonish veteran Uncle Peter, Phelim Drew’s lovable drunkard carpenter Fluther Good, Janet Moran’s effervescent charwoman Mrs Gogan, Ciaran O’Brien sanctimonious Marxist Young Covey, are all individually fine performances they don’t always seem to naturally occupy the same space.
This slightly stilted tone continues through into the pub with Nyree Yergainharsian forthright prostitute Rosie Redmond. However, once the fight between Mrs Gogan and Hilda Fay’s bitter Protestant Bessie Burgess breaks out, the tone shifts, for the better in my view. Now the way external events catch up with the individual characters starts to add texture. SO’C’s critique of the “heroic” telling of this passage in Irish history is manifest even if you know very little about it. The compassion of the women in the play is highlighted, especially Bessie Burgess, the best role here. The fear that violent struggle precipitates, as the soldiers break into Bessie’s attic, is palpable.
I think it might just become a much better play in the second half. I can see that the brazen looting, young Moliser’s death from TB, (some convincing coughing on demand from Julie Maguire decked out in tribal footie shirts), Nora’s stillbirth and delirium and Bessie’s sacrifice create a tonal shift into something as bleakly overblown as the first half was comically pigeonholed. Yet is feels more sedulous, certainly in this production.
It is a hard thing to bring out the complexity of ordinary people living on the periphery of historical change. Weaving a drama from this, whilst still setting out to upset just about everyone involved in creating the narrative which idealised this change, is surely doubly difficult. You can see why the play had such an impact when first performed at the Abbey in 1926. I can also see why its status as “canonic” theatre also makes it a tricky piece to get right. This might not have been the perfect production on first viewing but I suspect I will grow to like SO’C with more exposure.
I took the wrong route home, (bus not tube since you ask), which meant that an earnest young chap, I suspect gently in his cups, politely asked for my programme lying on the seat. He carefully asked my opinion on the play. I was a little sniffy. I now regret that. I do hope he went.
Final aside. Apparently SO’C lived in Totnes. And died in Torquay. I didn’t know that. Seems like there is more to the Tourist’s birthplace than he ever realised. The more you learn the more the more the connections build.