The Plough and the Stars

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green reviews Seán O’Casey’s handsome and heart-felt production, The Plough and the Stars showing at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton auditorium

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The play which caused a riot when it premiered in 1926, namely Seán O’Casey’s great The Plough and the stars, returns in a first-rate revival, directed by Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton auditorium, marking the centenary of the Easter Rising.

The action is set in and around Dublin over nine months leading up to rebellion itself, when, at the conclusion of the bloody fighting, troops were in control of the streets, the rebels arrested and 450 individuals including many women and children were dead. The focus here, though, is on the impoverished, disparate residents of a dingy tenement block as they go about their lives, bickering and arguing and picking petty quarrels that prefigure in the life and death struggle to come. Nora, pretty wife of Jack Clitheroe, a member of the Irish Citizens Army begs him to put his love for her above his desire to fight for an independent Ireland, Bessie Burgess, the protestant upstairs has a son fighting at the front and despises all the vainglorious posturing of her republican neighbors, while the young Covey makes the argument that the only real freedom is economic and without an escape from poverty nothing will change for these people.

This is a drama with a tropical resonance as a portrait of poverty and domestic turbulence set against a background of political upheaval, with the contrast between lofty idealism and everyday desires all too clearly conveyed. The language, though entirely realistic, ripples and shimmers full of profound poetry, interspersed with savage humour and tipping into darkness as the tragedy unfolds.

Vicki Mortimer’s tenement set is incredibly evocative. The vast rotating structure is peeling and crumbling, even the opening scene set in 1915. It already looks war-ravaged. The whole thing twists ingeniously so the audience can see the outside of the building too and really get a sense of people living on top of each other, the poverty and hardship, but also the sense of community.

The play is an ensemble piece and every character has a moment in the spotlight. But all the cast are uniformly excellent and give the impression of really getting under the skin of their characters and bringing them vividly to life. Judith Roddy’s performance as the brave but aggressive, yet charitable Bessie Burgess, given to signing ‘Rule Britannia” out of windows at the height of the rebellion and Stephen Kennedy as carpenter Fluther, at his best when returning completely inebriated from a spree of opportunistic looting, are equally commendable.

This, in short, is a handsome, heart-felt production of harrowing intensity that you will not forget in a hurry.

The Plough and the Stars

Showing at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton auditorium until 22 October 2016

Box office: 020 7452 3000

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