The Plough and the Stars
An Abbey Theatre, Dublin, production
That wonderful creative institution, The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, is 100 years old. To celebrate the centenary, the Barbican has invited its company to bring across an archetypal Abbey production, the third play in Sean O'Casey's trilogy of Dublin life during revolt.
Set in the midst of the Easter Rising of 1916, The Plough and the Stars (itself the flag of freedom) views the impact of events on a rich selection of ordinary people inhabiting a single tenement. The drama eventually builds to a symbol-laden tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions.
The set designed by Francis O'Connor is substantial with the playing area surrounded by vast quantities of detritus loaded on to sandbags. This seemingly symbolises the Civil War zone in Dublin but also alludes to the trenches of mainland Europe.
This is a matriarchal society, as much because O'Casey populates his play with weak men as strong women. These people fight each other verbally and even physically, but when the chips are down and lives in the balance, they pull together in a really life-affirming fashion.
The early focus is on Cathy Belton's "Pretty Little Judy" Nora Clitheroe, a newly-married woman whose husband, Jack, is already as happy to spend his time with the Citizen's Army as the little woman. Their fates symbolise the country with Nora's final madness saying so much.
Their household extends to a wonderful trio of indigent men. Eamon Morrissey as Fluther, a reforming drunk and surprising hero, and John Kavanagh as Peter, a coward who dresses in the overblown sub-military regalia of one hundred years before, are both excellent in comic cameos. Anthony Brophy as The Young Covey, a Communist, constantly baiting "Uncle" Peter is not far behind.
The women are the true heroes. Olwen Fouéré is excellent as the overly-talkative Mrs Gogan, morbidly expecting deaths and constantly warring with ugly Bessie Burgess. The latter is played by Catherine Byrne, as a grim woman beloved of the Union flag and the King that it represents. This is something of a caricature but Miss Byrne and her character acquire real nobility in the presence of illness; and this pair of sparring women eventually achieve a love of mythic proportions.
The first half of the Abbey's Artistic Director Ben Barnes' production is humorous. He also achieves a real sense of time and location, as might be expected with this play set only yards from his theatre.
The play really takes off as the action moves on a few months into the heart of battle. It becomes tragically poignant and very impressive, as one after another of the main characters have their lives snuffed out like the play's final flickering candle. All this played out in pursuit of unavailing struggle for freedom from the British army, represented by a couple of unlikely Cockney Tommies.
Sadly, the run is not long. The chance to see the Abbey company performing O'Casey should not be missed, so rush along to the Barbican if you can.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher