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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Plough And The Stars
Lyric Hammersmith  Spring 2018

Giving the benefit of the doubt, I always assume that a director filtering a play through new perceptions or staging devices is attempting to illuminate and re-invigorate a perhaps overly familiar text and bring it closer to an audience. 

But so much about Sean Holmes's production of Sean O'Casey's drama (first seen at the Abbey Theatre two years ago) has the effect of distancing the audience from O'Casey's play that I can't help suspecting the imp of the perverse. 

O'Casey anchored his play in a very specific time and place – a tenement in Dublin just before and on the night of the 1914 Easter Uprising – to show how some of the residents were caught up in the political events, some tried to escape them, and some lived dramas of their own despite what was going on outside. 

The first dislocation in this production is literal, as Sean Holmes and designer Jon Bausor open on what looks like a rehearsal room, with the actors in their modern everyday clothes moving among makeshift sets and props. 

This twenty-first century setting will gradually become more solid, with those in the pub scene keeping track of events outside by television, looters carting off washing machines, soldiers in modern combat gear and the sounds of jets and helicopters overhead. 

Meanwhile, in place of the solid realism O'Casey calls for, director Holmes repeatedly breaks the fourth wall. Whenever the lines even remotely allow for it, the actors stop talking to each other and step forward to speak directly to the audience, generally with a nod and a wink that turns realistic conversations into ironic commentary. 

A microphone stand is placed prominenty onstage, and actors repeatedly step up to it to sing songs or deliver lines, while incongruous modern pop music and dancing accompany the set changes. 

The overall effect is a very uneasy mix of Brecht and Christmas Panto, neither of which really has anything to do with – and more importantly does anything to enhance or illuminate – O'Casey's play. 

The result, of course, is to destroy any sense of time and place in a play that is entirely about time and place, to deny the actors the chance to develop and sustain characterisations in a play that is entirely about the characters, and to subvert the play's intention to show us something about the reality it depicts. 

A talented and hard-working cast follow their director's orders, and it is not their fault that few manage to register.

It is noteworthy that hose who do suggest characterisations we would have liked to see more fully developed are those who are least required by the director to keep breaking reality – Kate Stanley Brennan as a fearful wife turned grieving widow, Hilda Fay as a seemingly hostile neighbour who proves the strongest friend, and Phelim Drew as a well-meaning but ineffectual guy who survives just because he is such a nobody. 

I can't imagine anyone coming to this play for the first time getting any sense at all of its power, and those who know it will have to fill in too much that this production does its best to hide.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   The Plough And The Stars - Lyric Hammersmith Theatre 2018

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