Thursday 28 July 2016

The Plough and the Stars

Lyttelton – National Theatre
27th July, 2016 – press night

The National Theatre’s revival of Sean O’Casey’s play not only marks the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin but also allows us to reflect on more recent instances of nationalism closer to home.

O’Casey sets his play in a Dublin on the brink of change and rebellion, yet his deft focus is on everyday people who live together in a run-down tenement, caught up in the Rising. Among them is Fluther (Stephen Kennedy), a carpenter who we first meet having just fixed a door taking pride in how he’s apparently given up the drink. He’s joined by the charwoman Mrs Gogan (Josie Walker) who establishes herself as the busybody of the tenement, gossiping about the other residents and complaining how Nora Clitheroe is getting above her station. As people come and go we become more aware that this is a war being played out on the streets of their homes and one which plunges the lives of ordinary civilians into being directly involved.

Certainly that is the case in Howard Davies’ and Jeremy Herrin’s co-production, where it is the women’s struggles who stand out. Particularly impressive is Judith Roddy whose Nora is sprightly and wants to pride herself in her home: she lays the table with a certain musicality and keeps order over the squabbling men. She lives for her husband and you feel her pain when he prioritises his volunteering duties and the love of his country before the love for his family.

In the second scene, we hear the voice of a speaker rejoicing that war may be terrible but it ‘is not an evil thing’ and that ‘there are many things more horrible than bloodshed and slavery is one of them’. But for the few characters who paint war to be heroic in its efforts to free Ireland they are overshadowed by O’Casey’s portrayal of the monstrosities of war. Not only does it kill and wound those fighting but we see the very tangible effects it has on others. Nora loses her baby as well as mentally suffering and Bessie is shot as she tries to stop Nora from calling out of the window. The bleak ending sees three previously strong-willed women dead, bereft, or emotionally unstable but, ultimately, left picking up the pieces. Any lack of redemption in the final moments shows the futile attempts of violence in the cause of nationalism which gives plenty of food for thought in the wake of recent displays of nationalism during the EU Referendum campaign.

The Irish cast handles O’Casey’s language extremely well, even if this production doesn’t put much prominence on his comedy. Lloyd Hutchinson, looking like ‘th' illegitimate son of an illegitimate child of a corporal in th' Mexican army’ in his regalia as Nora’s uncle, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Stephen Kennedy offer fine support as the tenants who may bicker over ideas of religion and science but are united in their poverty and respect for Nora.

Vicky Mortimer’s design impressively evokes the squalors of tenement living and the sense that Dublin’s streets became a battleground, but it also suggests the sense of home that Nora tries to inject in the tenement as well as the sense of community in the local bar. In the later scenes, James Farncombe’s atmospheric lighting recreates the skies of a devastated Dublin, while Stephen Warbeck’s music frames the play with a melancholy tone.

Davies’ and Herrin’s production highlights O’Casey’s adept eye for humanity and detailed characters who live upon a backdrop of the far-reaching destructive and unforgiving effects of war.

The Plough and the Stars plays at the National Theatre until 22nd October.

Credit: Johan Persson

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