Review: The Plough and the Stars, at Hammersmith Lyric
23 March, 2018 — By Leo Garib
WHEN Sean O’Casey wrote this play the world had been shaken up. In 1926, Europe was still aghast at the industrial slaughter of World War One. Revolution had swept Russia, the embers flickered in Germany and Ireland was lit by the spirit of liberation. But hundreds of mostly civilians had been killed in the 1916 Easter uprising against British rule and Ireland was split between those welcoming the new Irish Free State and others angry at surrendering the north of Ireland Britain.
O’Casey, once a leading member of the socialist Irish Citizen Army, a navvy and trade union organiser, was bitter at the “great mistake”. The uprising had been a nationalist folly, not socialism, he fumed, and as he bashed out The Plough and the Stars, it all came out.
There had never been a play like it. O’Casey wanted nothing to do with the one-dimensional 1916 heroes hitherto the staple of Irish fiction. Dublin’s slum-dwellers were put on stage in all their colour, frailty and determination. They backbite, love, roar and fight. A prostitute had never been portrayed on stage before but here she is. O’Casey’s less than heroic characters and depiction of Dubliners looting shops as the uprising raged, sparked a riot when the play opened in the city’s Abbey Theatre in 1926 but O’Casey stuck to his guns.
Under the ultra-experienced hands of director Sean Holmes and set designer Jon Bausor, this revival straddles the years. Set in today’s Dublin, the backdrop, including music, and the British soldiers are modern day. The rest, however, is pure O’Casey and the cast carry it off with the expertise only the Abbey Theatre could manage. It’s their play, after all.
The brightest stars may have been Phelim Drew as the ne’er do well but lionhearted Fluther, Hilda Fey as Bessie Burgess, the neighbourhood termagant loyal to the Union Jack but who risks her life for everyone; Janet Moran as the death-obsessed gossip Mrs Gogan, Ciaran O’Brien as the communist Young Covey, and Niall Buggy as the hopelessly ineffectual Peter Flynn. But the cast is beautifully balanced with stellar performances, including Kate Stanley Brennan as the broken-hearted Nora Clitheroe, Nyree Yergainharsian as the sassy prostitute, and Julie Maguire as the consumptive Mollser.
O’Casey was furious that people still lived in the sprawling Dublin tenements without enough food, sanitation or hope, and the production cleverly plays up Mollser’s part.
“It isn’t a question of English or Irish culture with the inanimate patsies of the tenements but a question of life for the few and death for the many,” O’Casey wrote in 1926. “Irish-speaking or English-speaking, they are all what they are; convalescent homes of the plague, pestilence and death”.
There are plenty of problems with O’Casey’s play, especially the clichéd women characters. In 1926, he was attacked for being patriarchal. Allowing for the time and place it was written, though, it has travelled well. In 2016, it was the natural play to mark the centenary of the Easter Uprising. On the last leg of the Abbey’s tour that included the U.S., it is even more relevant now that Brexit could pull Ireland apart just as it was knitting itself together, and cynicism and fascism are crawling out of the sewers again. Time for O’Casey flutter to remind us what humanity and poetry comes from the unlikeliest places.
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