The Plough and the Stars – National Theatre, London

Writer: Sean O’Casey
Co-Directors: Jeremy Herrin, Howard Davies
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Even for a play about collateral damage during an armed urban conflict, there’s a surprising amount of violence in Sean O’Casey’s 1926 play. Set in November 1915 and Easter 1916 in inner city Dublin, there’s plenty of shots fired and scuffles as pressure rises, but the most shocking moment of all comes right at the end, with the pouring of a cup of tea. O’Casey’s genius, and the intelligence of this production, leaves the audience emotionally battered and frail enough that this seemingly simple act feels like an assassin finishing off a crawling target.

Written to confront the notion that Ireland’s 1916 rising was in some way heroic or romantic, the play is a revelation of how this bloody week in April tore through the city’s poor and left nothing but devastation for those who were dragged into it by aquirk of location. It’s told through the struggles, both petty and existential, of one tenement houses inhabitants, who are used as proxies for the national and international forces that created the wider situation.

In Jack Clitheroe, we have a nationalist zealot, the one character who actively takes part in the rising at the cost of his own life and his wife’s sanity. Her uncle is a paper thin republican, dressing in plumage and boasting about his love for Wolfe Tone and Ireland, but turning looter as soon as he hears there’s goods going. Along with that are a widow with a sick daughter, scrabbling for coin, and an abrasive drunk shouting about God save the King and her son in the trenches. It’s tempting to think of Fluther Good as a poetic invention, Irish everyman with a charm that would take sparrows off a tree and no slouch when it comes to standing up for himself or his friends. We also have the Young Covey, the classic role of the fool, or if you like, Puck. An energetic and scrappy voice being overwhelmed and pushed around by all he meets only to rebound with all former cheek intact, whose mind never leaves the track of the Labour movement,

Through the play, we see these people and more enact an international political situation, supporting and opposing, and ultimately returning to their own selves as the tide of events in the streets engulf them. It’s a painful play, and its crusade of exposition slices skin from muscle, and muscle from bone until we’re left with a harsh and bare portrait of violence’s true consequences.

It’s told through beautiful, but highly stylised writing. An admiring portrait of inner city Dublin vernacular. Creating imagery from a people whose native language has few swear words but limitless verbose and detailed curses. This is of course helped by a genuinely outstanding cast. As the Young Covey, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is a sharp whippet of a socialist, an angry but toothless would-(never)-be worker revolutionary, and a joy to watch. As Nora Clitheroe, Judith Roddy provides absolute sorrow as the woman abandoned by her revolutionary husband who thinks “Ireland is greater than a wife”. Her mental breakdown plays out to a truly shocked audience, wide-eyed at the pain she portrays. Others such as Stephen Kennedy’s Fluther Good, and Justine Mitchell’s Bessie Burgess are magnetic in their own right, all coming together in a heady collection.

That idea of stripping away layers to a final revelation is powerfully evoked in Vicki Mortimer’s set and design. It’s the type of design university essays will be written about, excellent and intricate. The tenement house revolves and evolves into a street and a destroyed former home, with incredible detail in the finishings and furnishings, pushing the destruction of a working class life into the cold open.

Strong pacing and direction from the Davies and Herrin duo endow the work with an orchestral form, rising to a powerful crashing crescendo before a subtle, silent fade to black. Their creation draws the audience in so that by the time the soldiers stand there at the end in the ruined house, amid ruined lives, it’s a crushing act of trespass and ingress against these characters we now have such sympathy for that we can’t forgive them, and are left tense and angry as the lights go down.

It’s very nearly an ideal version of the play. Strong, memorable performances, strident presentation of difficult material and shock. If only we could get all the Dublin accents right, that extra half star would be safely in the bag.

Runs until 22 October 2016| Image:Johan Persson

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