In the centenary year of the Easter Rising, Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars has been revived at the National’s Lyttleton Theatre. The title references the flag of the Irish Citizen Army (‘the Starry Plough’), representing a free Ireland. When it was first performed in Dublin in 1926, it provoked strong reactions from its audiences and was something of a controversial hit.
The play begins in November 1915, just as hints of rebellion are in the air, and jumps to Easter Week 1916 for the third & fourth acts. For the most part, it’s set in & around a Dublin tenement building, focusing on Jack & Nora Clitheroe and their neighbours. In so doing, it shows how ordinary people are affected by such widescale events.
Vicki Mortimer’s design is fantastic, from costumes to the set itself. Every little detail is taken care of, making it as authentic in style as possible. As ever with the National, its scale is impressive – even allowing Bessie Burgess to shout down from an upstairs window whilst the other residents are out in the street! The stage turns mechanically to transition between acts; cleverly there is unscripted action taking place at these transitions, which keeps up momentum as the stage’s movement is quite slow.
James Farncombe’s lighting design also plays a big part, being particularly effective when people gather outside the pub to hear speeches, and showing Dublin aglow from within Bessie’s room.
Whilst the accents are all very well done (Irish actors are indistinguishable from non-Irish, thanks to the work of Charmian Hoare), they are occasionally a bit too thick and a piece of dialogue gets lost here & there. However, the performances are exceptional across the entire company.
Justine Mitchell, as Bessie Burgess, starts off loud, brash & unlikeable – she is in favour of British involvement in governing Ireland, and her son even enlisted to fight for Britain in the First World War. This sets her against her neighbours and they continually come to blows. The turning point comes during Easter Week, when she realises they need to work together to survive the violence. Mitchell’s portrayal of Bessie’s exhausted determination as the play draws to a close is most affecting.
Much of the light relief comes from Stephen Kennedy as Fluther. Despite the very serious nature of the play’s subject matter, there is a surprising amount of humour – it is a very human thing to find comedy in the midst of tragedy, and O’Casey’s script does this to great effect. The residents engage in a spot of looting as the riots start, with Fluther choosing to get some free alcohol (despite constantly attempting to give it up); Kennedy is particularly hilarious as a drunk Fluther staggering back & struggling with the weight of the jug he’s stolen.
For me, the star performance comes from Judith Roddy as Nora Clitheroe. When we first meet her, she’s very houseproud and, according to her neighbours, feels as if she’s above living in a tenement. Her marriage to Jack (Fionn Walton) is strained at times, not helped by his position as Commandant in the Irish Citizen Army. She constantly tries to prevent his involvement and grows ever more desperate, especially when heavily pregnant by the time of the uprising. Nora is a highly tragic figure in the play, and Roddy’s portrayal of her grief-stricken confusion is profoundly moving. Even the most hard-hearted of people will surely find tears in their eyes as they witness Nora’s plight. An unforgettable performance.
My verdict? A stunning production that depicts an important, but not widely known, time in modern history – and highlights the human cost of violence to great effect.
The Plough and the Stars runs at the National Theatre (Lyttleton) until 22 October 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office – Friday Rush tickets are on offer for this production.
Post courtesy of Theatre Bloggers: www.theatrebloggers.co.uk