The Plough and the Stars – Gaiety Theatre – Review by Paddy McGovern
Until 5th May
Photos by Tristram Kenton
Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and The Stars, set in the months between November 1915 and Easter 1916, takes its title from the banner of the Irish Citizen Army. As secretary of the ICA, O’Casey followed the arguments of the day between violent nationalism on the one hand, and socialism on the other. When James Connolly decided to launch armed revolt against British rule in Ireland, taking advantage of World War in Europe, O’Casey disagreed, feeling that the way forward lay in the implementation of true socialist ideals. He resigned from the Citizen Army. The play expresses O’Casey’s disillusionment with violent nationalism and, to a lesser extent with socialism or, more accurately, with socialists. His portrayal of central characters such as Jack Clitheroe and the Covey makes his views clear.
British director, Sean Holmes’s production highlights both the fun and the seriousness of the play, set in an inner-city Dublin tenement. Janet Moran’s Mrs Gogan – all fidgety inquisitiveness, morbid musings and romantic speculation fills the stage with energy and fun, even if at times she overdoes the loudness of tenement life. The spats between Uncle Peter in full Foresters uniform (Niall Buggy) and an original take on the Covey (by Ciarán O’Brien) take up where she left off. These are two finely realised characterisations even if at times their sparring is repetitive. O’Brien captures the core of the self-proclaimed socialist, spouting theory but lacking basic empathy with women like Rosie who are driven through poverty to sell her body. Mollser (Julie Maguire) dying from tuberculosis, the disease of the poor, watches all the action from high above the stage, a kind of silent Greek Chorus, an ever-present reminder that O’Casey’s real concern was for the wretched lives of Dublin’s destitute poor which he felt was ignored by the nationalist ICA.
Ian Lloyd Anderson’s Comdt. Jack Clitheroe is the perfect vehicle for O’Casey’s criticism of “the Minstrel Boys” of the Citizen Army, callow, full of posturing macho heroics and mistaken ideas of masculinity. He lacks true courage and integrity as his wife, Nora pinpoints for us. I doubt if the Jack and Nora (Kate Stanley Brennan) sub-plot has ever been better realised than by these two actors, highlighting as it does how natural love and passion is squashed by fanaticism and violence. Their sensual interplay, especially in Act l, is just one of the many original ideas in Holmes’s exploration that work to perfection.
When Clitheroe and his comrades, Capt. Brennan (a convincing Liam Heslin), and Lieut Langon (Paul Mescal) arrive in the pub, high on the emotional rhetoric of blood sacrifice and the glory of war, there is palpable menace. Silence. Then flags are flaunted, Ireland is proclaimed as greater than a mother – or a wife – as the trio glorify the value of wounds and “death for the independence of Ireland”. The apprehension and disapproval that hang in the air are not just the barman’s but O’Casey’s.
Whatever support comes to ordinary people like Rosie, Mollser, Nora or Mrs Gogan receive, it comes from the least likely of heroes, Bessie Burgess and Fluther Good, not part of any movement or “ism” but as individuals, simply acting on their natural human impulse of kindness. Hilda Fay’s Bessie is a fresh take on that character, authentic, pitch perfect and convincing throughout. Phelim Drew’s Fluther is flawless, his natural stage presence, superb timing and unerring ear for accent (as shown again in his in George Orwell show, Down and Out in Paris and London) making his a truly memorable interpretation.
Great plays like this one transcend the time in which they are set and Holmes relocates it firmly in today’s world of mobile phones, remote control news flashes, whirring helicopters and even the scream of a low flying jet fighter. His resetting points up universal truths about violence, fanaticism, the fetishising of flags and emblems, empty slogans being substituted for rational thought, the empty rhetoric of charismatic leaders whipping up emotions of impressionable followers. Young working class soldiers far from home, bewildered as they fight a war they do not understand. Shouty left-wingers intoxicated by the simplicity of their slogans and solutions to complex problems… we can certainly locate a few of those in today’s world. A man’s cajoling love talk turning in a flash to verbal abuse and physical violence towards a woman. And as for those who boast of never missing a pilgrimage to Bodenstown, well, we need only eavesdrop on Easter commemorations and the odd Ard Fheis!
The last act of the play is where O’Casey drives home his message. A coffin, with a dead woman and a baby, dominating a darkened stage, frightened men and dying women huddled around it in a claustrophobic, candle-lit attic. The scene should act as a powerful counterpoint to the heady verbal heroics in the pub scene. Holmes’s direction seems almost wilful in the way it diffuses the tragedy. Characters are perched on scaffolding, ten feet above the coffin. Mrs. Gogan’s heartbreaking entrance loses much of its impact, as she clambers up the steps behind the men. The impact of Stanley Brennan’s otherwise brilliant Nora is diluted as she scrambles over steps and strides across the stage, stretching credibility too far for a woman who has just miscarried and may well be dying. The act raises the question of whether, on balance, the price paid for many delightful insights earlier may be too high.
However, this brave, imaginative and thoughtful production of O’Casey’s great masterwork shows that it still has so much to say – even if we are no more likely to hear its message today than the original audience was, almost a hundred years ago.
This Abbey Theatre/ Lyric Hammersmith co-production continues its run at the Gaiety Theatre until May 5th.
Cast: Ian Lloyd Anderson, Niall Buggy, Charlie Cassen, John Currivan, Phelim Drew, Hilda Fay, Liam Heslin, Julie Maguire, Paul Mescal, Janet Moran, Ciaran O’Brien, Kate Stanley Brennan, Adam Strawford and Nyree Yergainharsian.