Runs until 22nd October 2016
This year marks the centenary of the Easter Rising, and it would seem only fitting for The Plough and The Stars to arrive at the National at the time it has. It is a play which at first glance could put many off due to its political context, however, the story told is far more interesting. It is an overwhelming display of how, despite religious and political divisions, a community can come together and defend itself from an external threat, all the while griping at each other. It is a tale that deals with the notion of fighting a war on your own doorstep, of familial and community discord, of people.
Jeremy Herrin & Howard Davies’ production of the third instalment of Sean O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy was a genuinely enjoyable event, but to say much else would be a stretch. Their interpretation was keen to bring out the comedic elements of the play, and they certainly achieved this, but the hurdle of honest, touching pathos was often just a little too high.
The play opens to a delightfully mundane, in both action and setting, domestic introduction of the primary characters in a rather mechanical, but enjoyable first act. We were presented with the tiringly gossipy Mrs Gogan (Josie Walker), the wonderfully ‘derogatory’ Fluther (Stephen Kennedy), the fluent Marxist Young Covey (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a man who took deep joy in goading the proud nationalist Peter (Lloyd Hutchinson), the strong-willed and passionate matriarch, Nora Clitheroe (Judith Roddy), the frustratingly proud protestant unionist Bessie (Justine Mitchell), and the determined ICA commandant Jack Clitheroe (Fionn Walton). The comedic spats these characters engage in provide entertainment for the entire first half of the play, before it turns to the Easter Rising post-interval.
“a genuinely enjoyable event, but to say much else would be a stretch”
The tense nature of the Clitheroe marriage is perhaps the most interesting part of the story, and it is first made apparent when revealed that Nora withheld news of Jack’s promotion to commandant from him. The beauty of the prose is that each member of the audience can empathise with both members of the relationship. Nora’s need for her husband to remain home, in its relative safety, makes as much sense as the proud Irishman’s desire to fight with his brothers-in-arms for his country’s freedom from the plough to the stars. Roddy and Walton both prove themselves more than capable in some genuinely uncomfortable scenes – at one point he throws his pregnant wife from him so he can save a man’s life who is literally dying before him, whilst she begs him to stay so as he can avoid that same fate.
O’Casey understands the nuances of comedy: the repetition of Young Covey’s obsession with Marxist rhetoric and his childlike glee at taunting Peter; Fluther’s seemingly wonderful inability to speak in the first, to name a few. But this is unfortunately what lets the production fall flat. The story is ultimately one of soul-crushing tragedy flecked with specks of humour, but the play presented was quite the reverse. As we enter act four, the small coffin in the corner of the room proved anti-climactic by this point, although when the four men began to carry it down, we were teased with a truly tragic moment. However, the heavy-chested emotion that returned at this event is wiped clean as they attempt to play even this for laughs. More than this, the death of a principal should have been an unrelentingly heart-rending scene, and for the first few minutes, it was. Five minutes later, the scene had lost its poignant spark. The play was not, however, entirely lacking in this area. Nora’s descent into the psychological torment of losing a husband and baby was, at times, beautifully portrayed. Unfortunately, Roddy did descend into simply shrieking on occasion, somewhat distracting from the illusion, but that’s not to say elements of her breakdown weren’t painful to watch – in the best possible way.
One standout element of the production is the set of Vicki Mortimer, whose use of the Lyttelton’s fantastic stage space couldn’t be faulted. Taking full advantage of the rotating stage, she had managed to craft four different, beautifully naturalistic scenes for each of the acts to take place in. Every new setting we were treated to was such a perfectly thought out image that a palpable atmosphere accompanied each one.
What is most surprising about The Plough and The Stars is that it doesn’t stay with you. There are no weak actors in the play, but nor are there any standout performances. It is a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, and one that you won’t regret, but when the events of the story are considered, it should be so much more than this. Its messages of community in times of political turmoil are far from outdated, despite the writing being nearly a hundred years old. However, instead of being a deeply tragic tale which burns itself into your mind for days to come, it is more a comedy with a frustratingly close attempt at emotion that simply fades away as you exit the theatre.
James Baxter-Derrington & Maddie Andrews @Mads_Andrews
Image: Johan Persson