Thursday, 28 July 2016

Theatre review: The Plough and the Stars

Following the Globe giving The Taming of the Shrew a new setting, the National Theatre has its own production to mark the centenary of Ireland's Easter Rising, with The Plough and the Stars. Sean O’Casey's play, long controversial for being seen as pro-IRA, looks at a group of characters in a Dublin tenement in scenes six months apart: The first two acts take place in November 1915, with them going about their daily lives: Nora (Judith Roddy) is trying to get her new husband Jack (Fionn Walton) away from the Irish Citizen Army, her uncle Peter (Lloyd Hutchinson) is constantly arguing with his Communist nephew The Young Covey (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor,) and Mrs Gogan (Josie Walker,) recently widowed and whose daughter has Period Drama Cough, doesn't get on with her Protestant neighbour Bessie (Justine Mitchell,) whose son is fighting in World War I, and who likes to lean out of her windows shouting into the street like Trekkie Monster.

There's a lot of talk of independence, and of a need for bloodshed to achieve it: The second half of the play takes place during Easter Week 1916 when the bloodshed is no longer theoretical, and the characters discover the brutal reality of the sacrifices they have to make.

Unusually, Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin have collaborated as directors on a production that has more of the feel of the former's other big classics in this theatre, than the latter's snappier style. Vicki Mortimer provides another of the Lyttleton's trademark epic sets (before the play started an usher made the rounds asking the front row not to stand up during the scene changes, raising the distinct possibility that they're worried about audience decapitation by revolve.)

Although I was, admittedly, tired while watching it, The Plough and the Stars did little to make me feel any more awake. As a general rule, I don't really get on that well with these early-20th Century Irish plays that deliver more poetry than they do story - at least when the National stages them they usually cast Ronan Raftery so I've got something nice to look at, but no such luck this time - and the verbal tics O'Casey gives his characters here are grating: Stephen Kennedy's Fluther is very likeable, but the relentless running joke about his not really understanding what the word "derogatory" means but using it anyway grows old very quickly.

The third act is the strongest, balancing the drama and dark comedy as the characters go looting in the middle of the violence, but sadly the play lost me again by the fourth, which opens with a clumsy exposition dump, goes on to give Nora* an Ophelia mad scene, and ends with Multiple Ending Syndrome; there are some insights into a bloody chapter of history here and I can't really fault the production but the play itself wasn't for me.

The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey is booking in repertory until the 22nd of October at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

*whose hobbies include stopping people bleeding to death from getting medical attention, because I'M TALKING NOW

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