It seems Sean O’ Casey’s revered classic will never run out of fuel and this is currently The Plough and the Stars’ 56th incarnation at our National Theatre. Adding an extra dimension to the action this summer is the Abbey’s relocation to the O’Reilly Theatre, and much of the appeal of this production lies in its distinctly unglamorous location. Denying the middle-classes the comfort of the Abbey and forcing them to confront areas of Dublin city they may be hitherto unfamiliar with? O’ Casey would certainly approve.
The Plough and the Stars is a play that is defiantly Shakespearean in scope. In a theatrical scene that is too often defined by the bland pronouncements of monologues, much of the joy gleaned from O’Casey’s classic is watching how he weaves such a rich and intricate tapestry of characters. Of course the audience can also delight in its inherent Irishness, which never missteps and falls into cliché. However, behind the giddiness and drunken humour hides O’Casey’s anger, powerfully-worded, vicious and full of dense poetry. Despite having never completely abandoned nationalism, it is abundantly clear O’ Casey developed a distaste for it. The Plough and the Stars is not a misty-eyed, sepia-tinted celebration of our heroes, but a full and frank exploration of the brutal means by which freedom is often won. “Freedom”, spits Gabrielle Reidy’s wonderfully acidic Bessie Burgess, “sure, freedom wouldn’t be worth winning in a raffle.” With emotions riding so high, it is a pity that this most recent production sometimes falls flat.
The central relationship between Nora and Barry never convinces, with Kelly Campbell and Barry Ward seemingly oddly diffident. As a couple they are vaguely insipid, their ‘wild passion’ rather mild. Later, when Nora begins her descent into madness, the depiction of her insanity is too reliant on those old theatrical tropes of the white night-dress and the muttering, vacant stare to be truly heart-wrenching. Kate Brennan, playing the whore to Campbell’s virgin, sparkles as the prostitute Rosie Redmond and the lively exchanges between her and Joe Hanley’s brilliantly animated Fluther easily eclipse Nora and Barry’s doe-eyed fumblings. Certainly, it is the marginal characters who wrestle the action from the big players. Roxanna Nic Liam as sweet but sickly Mollser appears little, but leaves an overwhelming sense of tragedy and an abiding feeling of loss. As the revolutionaries are seen only in flashes, it is difficult to become fully invested with their personal tragedies and understand wholly the futility of their deaths. At the most poignant moments they come across as nothing more than toy soldiers, freshly-scrubbed boy scouts with a failing sense of purpose. Tom Piper’s tenement set is exquisite, reminding the audience, as the rooms divide and multiply, that war is not only fought on the streets but in bedrooms, kitchens, living-rooms and landings.
The last time the Abbey staged The Plough and the Stars was in 2010 and is difficult to know what they are trying to achieve from this production, staged only two years later. Are they telling us Dublin is “rotten ripe for revolution” once again? Or are they simply hammering home O’Casey’s point that “things change, but things stay the same”? Really, the final word must go to Fluther Good, who asks a man trussed up in decorative robes from a time long past, “Is the man making fun of the costume, or is the costume making fun of the man?”