running until 22 October
The National Theatre’s new production of The Plough and the Stars marks the centenary of the Easter Rising, a major event in Irish history that I’m ashamed to say I don’t know very much about. Given its absence in most English curriculum history lessons, I wonder how many of last night’s audience were that well-informed either (at least before they’d read the programme notes).
Luckily Sean O’Casey’s play doesn’t require you to know too much historical detail. It’s not a documentary of the Rising, but a character study of ordinary Dubliners: the patchwork of wit, humour, tragedy, eccentricity and courage that became the backdrop for bloodshed and the historical catalyst for Troubles to follow.
Act I takes a while to settle as the ground is laid – we’re a bit confused as to some of the relationships, and the quickfire dialogue with thick Irish accents isn’t always fully comprehensible. It feels as if O’Casey is sketching this lively, bickering depiction of the city ready for the power of Act II – and after the interval, the weightiness hits. There are bigger laughs alongside bleaker tragedy as the character foibles and tensions of Act I spill over into desperate actions and horrific consequences.
A cast of fine actors bring to life a collection of glorious characters. Stephen Kennedy’s Fluther is all big heart and broad humour, blended with a forlorn sense of the gravity of the situation – and his rolling drunkenness is hysterical. Bessie Burgess (Justine Mitchell) and Mrs Gogan (Josie Walker) are wonderfully drawn Irish women: strong, spirited, nosy, eccentric, stubborn – you might even call them “bloody difficult women”. The scene in which they squabble over a perambulator, before uniting to fill it with loot, seems to sum up their vigorous mix of humour, feuding, pettiness and determination to flourish in the midst of catastrophe. Yet in a real crisis they step up heroically and stand firm until the bitter end, through chaos and tragedy.
As Rosie Redmond, the prostitute whose presence in the story caused such uproar in 1926, Gráinne Keenan is full of witty rejoinders, her playful attempts at seducing clients contrasting with the rousing soapbox speeches outside the pub windows, tempting the men into rebellion. In contrast, Judith Roddy’s extraordinary Nora moves from desperate, almost grating clinginess to her husband, to utter devastation. There’s a hint of Ophelia in her later scenes, but it’s more raw and more agonising than I’ve ever found Hamlet’s doomed lover to be.
The cast are backed by Vicki Mortimer’s splendid design. Her vast, layered tenement set – looking damaged and war-torn from the start – towers above the characters, rendering them small figures in a big picture. By the final scenes the space has constricted into a single room that turns from refuge to helpless prison, as the danger crosses the threshold and the concept of a safe home is, quite literally, shot to pieces.
A gentle opener gives way to a bleak ending, and there’s a notable silence at the curtain as the audience drink in the haunting final moments. It’s not the kind of revival that necessarily looks to be a huge commercial success, but O’Casey plays the long game here, building the twisting blend of emotions towards a desolate ending. Ninety years after its premiere, The Plough and the Stars no longer causes riots, but quiet reflections on the suffering of ordinary men and women – the innocents of history caught up in extreme circumstances.
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I reviewed this show at press night as part of the #LDNTheatreBloggers network – find out more on the Theatre Bloggers website. Thanks to Theatre Bloggers and the National Theatre for the ticket.