Theatre: The Plough and the Stars; the Great Wave

By Evans, Lloyd | The Spectator, March 31, 2018 | Go to article overview

Theatre: The Plough and the Stars; the Great Wave


Evans, Lloyd, The Spectator


The Plough and the Stars by Sean O'Casey looks at the Irish nationalist movement during the events of Easter 1916. The setting is a Dublin tenement where the residents exchange gossip and insults and sometimes punches. What begins as an elevated soap opera develops into a tragedy of vast and harrowing proportions.

Sean Holmes's production was first seen at Dublin's Abbey Theatre and it tells the historic tale with contemporary costumes and furnishings. These chronological confusions rarely work but the performers here have so much spirit, energy and truthfulness that the narrative feels immediate and topical. The set is spare, unlovely, brutal. A scaffolding rig and a few rough wooden flats are ingeniously configured to create a pub, an apartment, a Dublin street, and a besieged attic. O'Casey sets out to show how the febrile atmosphere of civil war can unleash sub-conflicts between neighbours and families. We meet newly-wed Nora who conceals a letter summoning her husband to serve in the militia. She's pregnant, and she risks her spouse's anger in order to save his life. Young Covey, a jack-in-the-box Marxist, encourages everyone to despise the rebels because they're fighting their fellow proletarians rather than their capitalist overlords. A Dublin mother with a son enlisted in the British army regards the rebellion as a murderous stunt arranged by attention-seeking fools. To defy the nationalists, she unfurls a Union Jack and sings 'Rule Britannia'. This odd attitude, by no means uncommon in Dublin in 1916, has been all but erased from history by Irish patriotic sentiment.

At the play's heart is Fluther Good, a self-taught Dublin labourer, who sinks too many whiskies and starts a fight in a pub after hearing a prostitute being called 'a prostitute'. How swiftly disputes over labels can escalate into violence. A late scene illustrates the horrific banality of war. Nora, driven mad with grief, brews a pot of tea unaware that her neighbour on the floor beside her has been hit by a stray bullet and is bleeding to death. It's an exquisitely macabre juxtaposition: here a pot of tea, there a dying citizen.

The ensemble work is superb. Not a false note anywhere. The raucous militancy of Hilda Fay (Bessie Burgess) is terrible and fascinating to watch. Phelim Drew (Fluther) gives a fabulous account of barely caged virility. Ciaran O'Brien brings out the glinting and aggressive cowardice of the bar-room communist who wants everyone to fight but himself. …

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