The Plough and the Stars

The Plough and the Stars
By Sean O'Casey
National Theatre Lyttleton, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
All photos by Tristram Kenyon
Tickets: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

One hundred years on from Ireland's Easter Rising the National Theatre has marked the occasion with a pitch perfect revival of O'Casey's poignant anti-war masterpiece.

O'Casey's satirical play expressed his longstanding exasperation with that Rebellion and its participants, but it was his mockery of the sainted hero Patrick Pearse that prompted a full scale riot during its premiere at the Abbey Theatre in 1926. O'Casey put Pearse's words in the mouth of a demagogic orator, seen outside a pub, whilst inside a prostitute complained about her thin pickings on nights when the men are distracted by revolutionary fervour. Just 10 years on from the actual events this was all too raw. The aftermath upset O'Casey deeply and drove him into exile – in Devon, England – where he lived out the rest of his life.

Jointly directed by Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin this production manages to succeed where so many before have failed by ensuring that O'Casey's great flowery dialogue doesn't stifle the dramatic momentum of the piece. There are moments, such as when characters about to expire declaim an aria-like speech, which could be opera. This flies in the face of naturalism and has tripped up many a director.

What redeems the play and makes it universal, is its warts-and-all portrait of flawed humanity. The poor, always at the frontline in any war, are literally ducking and diving the bullets. Some fuelled by patriotic fervour, some by delusions, some by just drink.

The Plough and the Stars
Justine Mitchell (Bessie Burgess) and Josie Walker (Mrs Gogan)
in The Plough and the Stars

O'Casey's sympathies, too, were always with the women. Men were either vainglorious, deluded or foolhardy. The challenge therefore for his female leads is how to fashion a real human being and not some Greek tragedienne. Here these women manage to pull it off.

Justine Mitchell's Bessie Burgess is a horror: a drunken, spiteful and pious Orange woman, but when tested by events, and in spite of herself, she out-heroes them all. Nora, the heroine, is given real gumption too (and a great rasping voice) by Judith Roddy, a women driven mad by her husband's desire to leave her and fight. She's no wallflower though. Stuck in a grim tenement she is aspirational but her "notions of upperosity", as a neighbour memorably puts it, come to nought in a world shattered by war.

Then there is Mrs Gogan, normally a vituperative busybody who Josie Walker, in a revelatory performance here, manages to make a lynchpin of the play. We witness the gnawing desperation of her poverty as she nurses a consumptive daughter. She is a pragmatist and a fighter and we want to egg her on as she quickly grabs a pram off Bessie (having a periodic fit of morality) to rush off and make the best of the looting in Clery's department store. The comic moments too, usually involving her morbid fascination with dying, are beautifully rendered.

Among the men Lloyd Hutchinson delights as the comical Uncle Peter. In his dress uniform he's a popinjay in ostrich plumes. Irish TV star Tom Vaughan-Lawlor gives the firebrand young communist, the Young Covey, a pulsing physical energy and Stephen Kennedy succeeds in not tripping over his own verbosity as the wastrel, Fluther Good.

All the cast are younger than normal here, but they look older, as they would be, worn down by hardship. Kudos to all the design team. Vicki Mortimer's massive set is an exemplar for O'Casey, where too often the poverty is over polished. This Georgian tenement hasn't an ounce of its past grandeur left, the paint peels from every wall and the mending can't keep up with the dereliction. The whole house is encased in rubble.

Davies and Herrin bring this great play fully alive for a new audience and reveals that it has lost none of its urgency or anger ninety years on.

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