Friday, August 19, 2016

The Plough and the Stars

Confession time - I have never seen a Sean O'Casey play performed; nor have I read one. I usually tend to avoid overtly political drama.

However, as 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Easter uprising I decided to honour my Irish ancestry and indulge my literary curiosity by seeing this revival at the National Theatre (itself mounted to mark the occasion, playing until 22 October 2016).

Reviews have been a bit mixed, so I took my seat with some trepidation. However, I was soon sucked into the world of the Clitheroes' Dublin tenement. This is really a full-blooded, lushly romantic and visually very beautiful production of a traditionally-structured drama. The politics of the play are sophisticated and rooted in the frailty of human character - O'Casey pulls no punches with the British army's occupation and artillery bombardment of Dublin but he is equally harsh on the shortcomings of the nationalists and totally mocks the pretensions of the play's socialist. Nevertheless, O'Casey was a socialist himself and demonstrates a sympathy with all the individual characters - even the British Tommies when they appear are decent blokes who would rather have a cup of tea - and instead he shows how they are all individually trapped in unequal and exploitative social conditions.

It is true that the actors do have varied degrees of success and consistency with their accents, and that some words are difficult to hear. The play is very literary and 'wordy' though, and the directors Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin were probably wise to sacrifice pockets of legibility in favour of pushing the pace and drama overall.

What charmed me immediately was O'Casey's dexterity in the dramatic arts of foreshadowing, parallelism and contrasting. We first see Nora, the wife of a bricklaying Commandant in the Irish Citizen Army setting a table for tea; in the last act she sets it again in hugely different circumstances with a tragic outcome. In the second act there is a massive contrast between a political meeting outside a pub and the comic antics of a prostitute inside (this caused a riot at the play's premiere in Dublin). The third act, set in the street outside the tenement, starts off emphasising the poignancy of the characters' extreme poverty (Little Mollser clearly on the point of death from Tuberculosis); moves into the broad comedy of everyone looting when the British start to shell the city; followed ominously by the Irish Nationalist fighters with a severely wounded comrade escaping the inexorable British advance; and ending with the crisis between Nora and her husband, with the British soldiers very near. British soldiers make their physical entrance in the fourth act, and despite the horror of British military action the individuals themselves are ordinary guys just doing their job.

From today's perspective one could probably accuse the play of a kind of poverty porn (much played up by designer Vicky Mortimer's exquisite sets) - but on the other hand this is a function of the time it was written in. And surely it is so much more preferable to the Chav-bashing "Benefits Street"-style propaganda of today.

There are excellent performances from the female leads in particular - Justine Mitchell as Bessie Burgess and Judith Roddy as Nora Clitheroe are beautiful, poetic and tragic. Josie Walker as Mrs Grogan is funny and heart-warming; and Gráinne Keenan (Rosie Redmond) and Róisín O'Neill (Little Mollser) shine in smaller roles.

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