REVIEW: THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS (National Theatre, Lyttleton) ★★★

tpatsA legendary piece from a legendary writer, The Plough and the Stars is the third in the writer’s ‘Dublin trilogy and perhaps the bleakest, the play unwinds around a fractured Dublin beginning in November 1915 as people look towards a liberated Ireland culminating in the tragedies of the Easter risings of 1916, and the movement of the Irish Citizen Army, a militia who took on the state repression of unionised workers and the lockouts that caused poverty and misery for the slum dwellers of Dublin.

Their leader James Connolly’s assertion that a free Ireland would control its own futures from the plough to the stars was embodied in their flag, one of the most poetic of the workers’ movement. The plough represents the turning over of the soil of capitalist society by the revolution, planting the seeds for a future, that can harvest when they are ripe. While the stars elevate and illuminate the goals and ideals of the workers’ movement.

Sean O Casey had been the leader of the labour movement and who had bitterly opposed the ICA’s alignment with the insurrection and who leaves no room for idealistic endeavour in civil war. It’s always been an irony to me that the play is considered a classic. When the play was staged at Dublin’s Abbey 10 years after the risings there were riots and O Casey was vilified for demolishing the idea that the risings were the blood sacrifices of the Irish for freedom. And for portraying the working class as opportunistic looters rather than starving victims of cruel and imperious state.

The play is simplistic and monotone. The ruination of Nora Clitheroe when her husband chooses revolution over their romance and her descent in madness at the loss of her baby has always rankled with me – a stereotypical not to say sexist division of passion that only a man could write and get staged for almost a century. James Plunkett’s Risen People managed to make a more realistic portrayal of a range of the women in the risings – and their heroism.

The actresses stand out in this production however, Josie Walker’s Mrs Grogan for one is both formidable and vulnerable obsessing hilariously about the inevitability of death while tragically tending her daughter to her death. Justine Mitchell’s Bessie Burgess is a powerhouse performance from her window box proclamations until her prophetic demise as a shield at the window for the crazed loon of Nora Clitheroe. Nora’s more difficult to see here in what would have passed for Kate Bush video reading.

Of the men Stephen Kennedy is a beautiful Fewter, undiminished by his lack of words other than ‘derogatory’ and Lloyd Hutchinson is a coquettish and bewildered Peter Flynn.

But this production is uneven. It’s long at 2 and a half hours in 2 acts condensed from the original 4 but still some themes felt under-developed. Act 1 whips by at a pace but act 2 suffers from loose performances particularly Nora. The interplay between the real issues of the struggle and the comedy diversions are uncomfortable in places.

It’s worth seeing for the spectacular surroundings that Vicki Mortimer has devised to frame the poetry and power of the O Casey verse, in Act 1 the innards of a Dublin tenement that later rotates to show the street strife and actions of war. In act 2 a stunning inside of a Dublin bar as if painted by Rockwell. The stage design is monumental, overpowering and evocative. But the performances within it are uneven.

There is a beauty in the scene where the men take shelter and play cards next to a coffin of the deceased child even if the metaphor is laden. And the climax of Bessie Burgess and her death is both riveting and upsetting.

But the ending where two soldiers sing a cheery ditty over the corpses while drinking their tea was lame to the point of laughable – and indeed the audience did laugh – but like it was appropriate and not a scene from ‘Allo Allo’ in the old lady’s bedroom. I suppose Freud was right when he said that people bring what they want to see and hear what they want to hear in the theatre.

Reviewed by Barry Ryan
Photo: Johan Persson

THE PLOUGH & THE STARS is at the Lyttelton @ the National Theatre, London until 22 October 2016