fri 03/02/2023

The Plough and the Stars, Lyric Hammersmith review - trenchant reimagining of Irish classic | reviews, news & interviews

The Plough and the Stars, Lyric Hammersmith review - trenchant reimagining of Irish classic

The Plough and the Stars, Lyric Hammersmith review - trenchant reimagining of Irish classic

O'Casey's injunction to love thy neighbour above thy country hits home in timely update

Rooftop protest: Hilda Fay as loyalist nonconformist Bessie Burgess in 'The Plough and the Stars'photo: Tristram Kenton

Sean Holmes is artistic director of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, yet his revival of this seminal Irish play has taken two years to come home to him. The production was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, the miserably bloody six-day revolt that gave birth to the Republic of Ireland. It has since been seen by more than 50,000 people.

Given that Holmes is English (he’s a Sean, not a Seàn as in O’Casey, the author of the play), it was remarkable to be asked to direct such a famous Irish text addressing the issue of national identity. It was also, on the part of the Dublin theatre, a calculated risk, given Holmes’s reputation for approaching hallowed texts with a sandblaster.

Not for him a detailed reconstruction of a Dublin tenement such as dominated the National Theatre’s revival the same year. The trouble with showing a rundown Georgian terrace is that, however dirty the windows, over the intervening century shabby has become chic, and it’s hopeless trying to depict poverty on what could be a shoot for The World of Interiors.Kate Stanley Brennan as Nora and Ian Lloyd Anderson as JackInstead, designer Jon Bausor posits a bare scaffold for a tenement block and a straggle of ill-matched furniture. A chipboard door separates the cramped flat shared by newly-weds Jack and Nora Clitheroe from the hurly burly of the communal stairs. Indeed the entire first act of Casey’s play is a proto soap opera with cast of garrulous characters all intent on minding each others’ business.

You have to listen closely to pick up the full joyous range of malapropisms that pour from this crowd of low-achievers like unstoppered whiskey. Gossipy Mrs Gogan (Janet Moran) does a vivid line in descriptions of putrefaction, despite (or because of) having a daughter who’s dying of consumption; foul-mouthed loyalist Bessie Burgess hasn’t a good word to say for anyone but her boy, off fighting Germans in the trenches. For carpenter Fluther Good – a master of blarney – the word “derogatory” can be applied to anything from a ceremonial sword to a pint of malt. Phelim Drew makes Fluther unforgettable.

When protestors disrupted the 1926 premiere deeming it disrespectful of Irish heroism they were right, in a way

Yet not even a fine Irish cast and the addition of some touching songs and energetic slapstick succeed in making the first half go beyond a stumbling trot. We know there’s trouble ahead and the attempt at comedy feels like playing for time – perhaps a fault of the play rather than this production.

When protestors disrupted the 1926 premiere deeming it disrespectful of Irish heroism they were right, in a way. Through the mouths of these scrapping underdogs, O’Casey does indeed make the case for peaceful socialism over chest-beating machismo, but he does it so even-handedly that it’s hard to see what the fuss was about. He even makes the over-ardent Marxist, Ciaran O’Brien’s fantastically irritating Young Covey, a figure of fun.

The moral message is left for the audience to decipher, unlike the tub-thumping rhetoric delivered at the nationalist meeting attended by Jack and witnessed by the others on the pub TV. As the playwright once observed, campaigns for self-rule often conceal entrenched social inequality. Updating this play to an unspecified modern time reminds us how true that still is.

Yet while Jack sacrifices his marriage and ultimately his life by choosing the path of violent protest, other characters, who might reasonably be accused of political inertia by staying at home, increasingly show themselves willing to drop their petty squabbles. Each ends up performing some essential service, whether small or life-changing, to what begins to resemble a community.

The men brave sniper fire to carry a coffin through the streets. Bessie Burgess turns sober to care for tragic Nora, who in losing her baby loses her mind. Strong, nuanced performances by Kate Stanley Brennan as Nora and Hilda Fay as a gruff but ultimately heartbreaking Bessie bring the play to a fine emotional climax.

Too bad the two English tommies who have the last word weren’t better cast. All one of them has to do is negotiate the pouring of tea and sing a song, but to end on such a poor rendering of “Keep the Home Fires Burning” threatens to cancel out all the good work.

Director Sean Holmes has a reputation for approaching classic texts with a sandblaster


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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