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FringeReview UK 2016

The Plough and the Stars

National Theatre, London

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Comedic, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttleton


Low Down

This National Theatre production of O’Casey’s finest play on the centenary of the Easter Rising is something of a climactic collaboration: Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin from Headlong co-direct, Vicki Mortimer designs and some of the actors were of the company for the National’s 2014 The Silver Tassie, and Davies and some actors for the National’s and Abbey’s co-production of Juno and the Paycock of 2011-12.


Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin from Headlong co-direct this National Theatre production of O’Casey’s finest play on the centenary of the Easter Rising. It’s a climactic collaboration: Davies, Vicki Mortimer the designer and several of the actors were of the company for the National’s 2014 The Silver Tassie, and Davies and some actors for the National’s and Abbey’s co-production of Juno and the Paycock of 2011-12.


Some may be overwhelmed by Mortimer’s monumental set, but the audible gasps on first night weren’t misplaced. The detailed interior focuses action (some recent Lyttelton sets are both detailed but vast), the exterior fleetingly glanced as we revolve to a pub, then to the edge-on street corner exterior. Each compliment the action: actors calibrate seamlessly, movements match the set’s angles.


The play shuffles slowly then gathers speed. There’s a slight issue of phrasing: the tenement accent’s so authentically kerned (if you could reproduce it in type) that just in early scenes not everything’s clear to a non-Dublin audience. That doesn’t really matter. We’re eavesdropping on filleted naturalism.


This drama supremely focuses on the fall-out of the Rising on tenement dwellers, working-class people who possess nothing but sharp articulation (notwithstanding Fluther Good’s mis-applied ‘derogatory’) with no luxury to grandstand on events. Those who criticized it failed to see its slicing through middle-class self-mythologizing to Commandant Jack as a bricklayer, his Captain a chicken butcher.


Before the central tragedians enter, we’re treated to carpenter Fluther’s abjuring of drink as he fixes a door: we know where that’s headed, and Stephen Kennedy’s dipsily detailed drunk is the turn of this production. In a consummate choreography of sway and fall-back in the third act, he lurches into a kind of immortality. This comedic glory’s essential to set off the black.


As does Lloyd Hutchinson’s burlesque Peter Flynn a peacock or paycock himself in his G&S cod-Irish Volunteers uniform: virid green. He’s fairweather patriot uncle to newlywed Nora Clitheroe and we don’t get to her till Mrs Gogan (nosey Josie Walker) breaks open a delivered parcel to try on Nora’s hat, and Nora’s communist cousin The Young Covey (a pugnaciously timid Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) beats you over the head with Jennersky’s Marxist Thesis, twitting Peter. He’s O’Casey’s gentle self-parody as a socialist, not nationalist and nothing if not persistent. He finally tries it on a British corporal – surprisingly, a socialist. Even in a bleak finale, there’s a running joke. The fact that O’Casey agrees with Covey’s analysis, that nationalism’s hi-jacked the socialist agenda and sets Ireland to disaster, is never allowed to intrude.


Each of these highly-etched secondary characters point a survival not given to riding passions elsewhere. O’Casey started as a nationalist himself: in a supreme irony, his proclamation of the Citizen’s Army was appropriated by Padraic Pearse for his Independence speech, Pearse’s speeches re-appropriated by O’Casey in a demagogue’s oration outside the pub, five months before the Rising. Art imitating the artist’s life. It’s a magnetically comic, disturbing scene, megaphoned through pub window glass to the snug’s titters.


Judith Roddy’s Nora Clitheroe has already burned orders for her new husband’s call-up to the cause. Her furious, overtly sexual need for Jack (Fionn Walton) explodes twice: here in the tenement and later, outside as she encounters Jack helping a wounded comrade alongside his recruiting Captain. Her ruthlessly wild entreaties (now heavily pregnant too) are violently rejected: O’Casey doesn’t shirk from pointing Jack’s duty to a comrade whilst siding with Nora’s sense of its futility.


In the penultimate scene, Nora’s traumatised, hypnotic stare succeeds a dangerous wildness: her bloodstained nightie screams warzone: this production’s jagged skyline and explosions tell you how parts of Dublin resembled Ypres. As ever tenements get the worst of it.


Kennedy’s Fluther and others prove too they can break out of role, something even Juno and the Paycock doesn’t do: Fluther ducks ‘hummin’ bullets’ to arrange a funeral, as well as proving himself a boxing match for the fractious Covey (eventually, touchingly a friend) and impresses prostitute Rosie: their getting it together in the snug to the sound of demagogic ‘blood sacrifice’ beautifully affirms life over murderous rhetoric. Grainne Keenan’s Rosie sashays memorably between blandishment and fury as ‘They’re all thinking of higher things than a girl’s garthers…’


Equally in the great journey from prejudice ‘Orange’ Justine Mitchell’s raucous Bessie Burgess – much given to shouting ‘Rule Britannia’ out of windows – teams up with Republican Mrs Gogan in a looting spree, risks her life to feed Molliser, Mrs Gogan’s dying daughter, and rescues the distracted Nora.


It’s Bessie and windows that provide the shocking climax: this production elicits gasps. It’s these volte-faces, so perfectly realized here streaked with blood and comedy, that make this O’Casey’s masterpiece. Kennedy perhaps stands out, in a cast where Roddy, Mitchell, Walker, and Keenan also excel in this flawless production.


The very last scene, two British soldiers looting tea from those they’ve evicted, singing ‘Keep the home fires burning’, tell us they think they’re in a warzone, which they are, not part of the then British Isles, whose home fires they are indeed burning. The Irish are alien to them, their casual slaughter – a civilian ‘plugged’ – a matter for a sigh, whilst others try to kill them. Their sudden comfort zone sets up the cardinal disquiet of these distracted times. Yeats’ terrible beauty was born for another class.