The Plough & The Stars

theplough1…by Sean O’Casey is currently running at the National Theatre, London. On Saturday I went to see it.

The play is the third in O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy, including ‘Shadow of a Gunman‘ and ‘Juno and the Paycock‘, which tackle the subject of Irish independence and Irishness.

In it O’Casey (born John Casey) writes of what he knows – he was the Secretary of the Irish Citizen’s Army during the period before the insurrection of Easter 1916, although he did not take part in the fighting, being, by then, disillusioned with its leadership. The excellent programme notes (£4.50) set out a timeline of the rising and give the background in the year leading up to it ( including a detailed map of theplough3the areas where the fighting took place ).

The characters in the plays are the Dublin poor who crowded the tenements then regarded as the worst housing in the British Isles.  From middle class stock himself, O’Casey, a passionate socialist, wished to bring their plight to public notice and give them a voice. He parodies himself in the character of the committed communist, Young Covey, with his ardent desire to promulgate the word of Marx. ( For an interesting sidelight on the play and its writer as well as a wonderful example of one of the mind sets portrayed within it, see internationalism.org  ).

At the heart of the play are three women – recently married, socially aspirant Nora Clitheroe, jaundiced and gossipy Mrs Gogan, abandoned by her husband with their consumptive daughter, and the Protestant Bessie Burgess, loud and often drunk, but desperately anxious for her son fighting at the Front in WWI. theplough2Their bickering and their inter-dependence – the mutual support of the down-trodden – gives the play its strong spine. The claims of the ICA on the loyalty of the protagonists and the run up to Easter ’16 is one narrative driver, another is the loving, if fractured, domestic relationship between Nora and her husband, Jack, who is blinded by what Nora considers the Irish patriot death wish.

The juxtaposition of and conflict between these two aspects of human nature is what particularly illuminated this play for me on Saturday, though it contains other themes.

I don’t imagine that any tenement dweller ever spoke as these do, in a lilting poetic dialect, which sometimes teeters on the edge of ‘Oirish’, though I guess that, given the Dublin accent, that is difficult to avoid.  Yet the poetry doesn’t preclude a sense of fun, found in Fluther Good’s linguistic infelicities and Young Covey’s earnest lack of self-awareness.  This is a funny play as well as a bleak one, prompting laughter as well as stunned silence. Nor does it pull its punches when it comes to the actions of some of the characters, who are as likely to loot as to fight.

The performances are excellent across the board, with superb ensemble playing and the Lyttleton’s revolve is used to good effect, the stage representing, in turn, a tenement apartment, a street, a bar, outside the tenement and an attic room.  The play’s ending is bleak and unsatisfying, though it serves very well to place events into their wider context.  This isn’t a ‘feel good’ play, but it resonates as Greek tragedy does and it will make you think.  The more I think about it, the more I admire it. Definitely worth going to.

‘The Plough and the Stars’ runs until 22nd October 2016.  Ticket prices range from £15 to £60. For details see the National Theatre web-site.

If you enjoyed reading this article you might also enjoy                       In Another Part of the Forest               Farce at the Criterion                            Three Days in the Country

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