The Theatreguide.London Review
And The Stars
Lyttelton Theatre Summer-Autumn 2016
Like some other writers, Sean O'Casey had a driving idea that shaped several of his plays, with the originality of each lying in the new contexts in which he could make his point with dramatic power.
Men take themselves very seriously, invent causes, make speeches that convince themselves that their causes are important, commit themselves to their causes, play at being soldiers, and die. And women grieve.
It is a strong and necessary message, well deserving of repetition, and The Plough And The Stars (the reference is to the Irish nationalist flag) makes it strongly enough to deserve a more spirited and committed production than the overly cautious and overly restrained one that co-directors Jeremy Herrin and Howard Davies give it here.
(I should note that I saw this production at a preview, and some of the slackness I will complain of here may have been tightened up by the time you see it.)
The play was written in 1926, about the Easter Uprising of ten years earlier. We meet the honest working-class residents of a Dublin tenement – young marrieds Nora and Jack, various friends and neighbours, even the nasty loyalist neighbour Bessie.
A street meeting is planned, which gives the various men the opportunity to dress up in their home-made military uniforms or argue amongst themselves whether nationalism or socialism is the more worthy cause.
Jack is a member of a hitherto inactive guerrilla militia, and gets the word that the meeting will be the signal for an armed uprising, and despite Nora's pleas to stay home, goes off eagerly to fight.
That's the opening act, and there is only one direction the play can go from there. O'Casey has a few surprises up his sleeve, but people are going to die, and people, generally female, are going to be left to pick up the pieces.
The play caused riots at its Abbey Theatre premiere in 1926, largely because O'Casey seasons his dark story with the mild humour of bickering neighbours, fine-talking but cowardly men, some opportunistic looting of shops, even a jolly and not-unsympathetic bar room whore, that offended an Irish audience eager to mythologise its recent past.
Ninety years later the two National directors still seem particularly uncomfortable with these scenes and characters, as if the idea of punctuating serious drama and political statement with comedy didn't sit right with them.
But even in its serious moments the play operates on a grand scale that is in deliberate contrast to its pedestrian setting, as O'Casey wants us to see that these small people are capable of large emotions.
The characters, particularly the women, express themselves in a rough poetry – 'They've taken away the little happiness that life had to spare for me' (It's that word 'spare' that is so brilliant) – that wants to be underlined and relished, just as key scenes of pain or passion need to be played large, even at the risk of melodrama or overacting.
And the directors don't just fail to notice the power of those moments, but deliberately tamp them down, so that a play that should shock, outrage and move is left too often at an emotional distance from us.
Judith Roddy as Nora (who becomes the embodiment of suffering) and Justine Mitchell as Bessie (who shows herself stronger and more allied to the other women than we expected) carry most of the drama, while Stephen Kennedy, Lloyd Hutchinson and Tom Vaughn-Lawlor as cowards of different stripes do as much as they're allowed to do in serving the play with quiet comedy.
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