Review: The Plough and the Stars, National Theatre ‘Remarkable, Moving’

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2016 marks the centenary of the Easter Rising in Ireland where Republicans launched an armed insurrection to end British rule. It was the first armed rebellion in Ireland for over a hundred years and was timed to exploit British involvement in the First World War.

The uprising ended in a bloody massacre when the British, with their superior weaponry and larger numbers, opened fire on civilians and rebels, killing five hundred and wounding thousands. But though defeated, this event marked the beginning of the Irish Republican movement – the Irish civilian army eventually becoming the IRA.

This, Sean O’Casey’s powerful play on the insurrection, was written only ten years later. The anger at the injustice of the events was still palpable and fights were reported at the theatre during the production run.

A hundred years later and this play still hurts. That Sean O’Casey’s writing still captures the pain is remarkable. But it is also cleverly done for as much as this is a play about the Easter Rising, it also isn’t.

THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS by O’Casey,                  , Writer - Sean O’Casey, Director - Jeremy Herrin, Designer - Vicki Mortimer, Lighting - James Farncombe, The National Theatre, London, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson

This isn’t a play wading deep into the political machinations of the nascent republican movement, nor is it a play that screams the injustice of bloody mass murder.

Instead, Sean O’Casey put the rebellion in the background and pulled to the fore the ordinary Irish residents of Dublin – those who did not ask for war but instead had the war forced upon them. It is this focus, this sleight of hand, which has created this moving production on the injustice of war and how suffering is forced on those caught in the crossfire.

There’s the wife trying to desperately improve the circumstance of her life whilst trying to pour cold water on her husband’s political ambitions; there’s the mother whose son is off fighting in some Flanders field, a bar owner trying to keep the peace, an older man tired of fighting the good fight and increasingly resigned to life underfoot…

These are desperate lives. People whose lives are already beset with poverty and illness, who spend their energies just trying to survive. But, of course, such is the tragedy in this play, it is these lives that are going to be destroyed even more.

THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS by O’Casey,                  , Writer - Sean O’Casey, Director - Jeremy Herrin, Designer - Vicki Mortimer, Lighting - James Farncombe, The National Theatre, London, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson

Don’t though think play is an achingly painful play to endure. There is plenty of humour in this play, brought out even more by some sharp directorial touches from Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin with touches of comedy not necessarily scripted keeping the tone light where it needs to be, if only in to exaggerate the unfolding tragedy as it unravels.

What was interesting was how many grumbles I heard from the National Theatre audience about the Irish accents on stage, with some frustrated that they could not understand every word clearly, that the thick Irish accents were hard for English ears to understand.

Ah, but that is the point! This isn’t supposed to be laid out easily for the English to consume at our leisure. The English are outsiders here. Not only are the accents necessarily authentic, but it’s an implicit unspoken barrier put up to the English audience. This isn’t a play to flatter English sentiment – this is one where the English are the enemies.

Watching wretched lives get only worse is painful to endure but this is a beautifully paced and moving production.

National Theatre, London to October 22, 2016

Al photos by Johan Persson.

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