It is one hundred years almost to the month since the Easter Rising, the insurrection that began the armed struggle of Irish Nationalists against British occupation. It is ninety years almost to the month since the premiere at the Abbey Theatre of Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, inarguably the most significant play written about the Easter Rising. Riots greeted its Dublin premiere.
Referring at that time to earlier riots on the occasion of the Abbey’s premiere of John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, W.B. Yeats famously chided, “You have disgraced yourselves again. Is this to be the recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?”
Over the ensuing decades, The Plough and the Stars has seldom, if ever, been out of the repertoire of the Abbey. In the mid-70s, I saw the company tour a production to the Hartke Theatre on the CUA campus. (That tour starred the legendary Abbey actors Siobhan McKenna and Cyril Cusack.)
In this centennial year of the event the play depicts, and during The Kennedy Center’s Ireland 100 Festival, the Abbey returns with a new production. This is definitely not your grandfather’s Plough and the Stars.
Sean Holmes’ production deconstructs the play and releases it not only from a realistic staging, but also from the play’s time frame.
The production bursts with anachronism. Philip Stewart’s sound design employs loud contemporary music and features car alarms and remote-control electronics. (We hear snatches from a rally that is meant to occur outside a bar over the bar’s television set.) Catherine Fay’s costumes include t-shirts, sneakers, tight jeans, and modern chunky heels; some characters would fit easily into a crowd on a street today. Jon Bausor’s set is dominated by a bare scaffolding that indicates the tenement in which most of the action takes place.
The actors take many lines straight out to the audience, rather than to scene partners. Stage-hands mix with costumed actors during scene shifts. By the time we reach the Act Four climax, the realistic entering and exiting of characters has been replaced by a more stylized approach.
There is much in the production to be admired. The cast is uniformly strong (and game). The humor inherent in the script is deftly mined. There are moments that resonate deeply and that access the emotional power inherent in the profoundly sad narrative.
That said, I admired, but did not embrace, this production.
It’s a tricky thing, taking a novel, iconoclastic approach to a classic play. We’re used to it with Shakespeare or with the Greeks. (It’s more rare these days to see a play by the Bard in its intended time and place than to see it transported to some different context.) This approach is a newer thing with more contemporary classics. And sometimes, when a play, as this one, feels so fully a part of its time and place, the result is not fully satisfying. (For instance, I’m not sure if there would be anything to be gained by taking one of August Wilson’s decalogue out of the particular decade in which each play is set, or by coloring it with contemporary touches.)
What the design choices do accomplish is that the play feels more universal, and the plight of the Dubliners, now dressed in contemporary clothes and surrounded by modern sounds, connects the horror of their circumstances to those of people in places like Sarajevo and Damascus. However, what is gained by a broader resonance is lost as regards the wonderful specificity of O’Casey’s Dublin of 1916.
I am not at all averse to this sort of experiment. How could I be, having directed at WSC several productions that detached plays from their original contexts (for instance, a Cherry Orchard whose music ranged from Peter, Paul, and Mary to Gogol Bordello).
But each experiment is different, and will be appreciated to different degrees by different people. What to me feels under-cooked will satisfy another person who likes his steak rare. Certainly, the cheers that greeted last night’s opening indicated that many in the house were more fully enthusiastic than I was.
For my taste, the inarguable insights that the production provided were offset by the jarring-ness of some of the production’s embellishments. That, to me, is the test: has the production mixed all its elements into a smooth and consistent whole? Or is it lumpy and jolting?
The scene between the central couple, Jack (Ian-Lloyd Anderson) and Nora (Kate Stanley Brennan), in the first act was strong and the actors made sense of their complicated relationship; but as much as the ensuing Elvis-style song built on that relationship, I didn’t feel prepared for it, and didn’t feel that it led neatly into the conclusion of the scene.
When looting occurs later in the play, the contemporary products somehow undercut my sense of the characters’ desperation and situational ethics; and when the scene is topped-off by someone with a modern dryer (complete with shrink-wrap) on his back, the choice feels jokey, not illuminating.
Crucially, the final, painfully tragic scene is played so abstractly, at points, that the play’s power is intermittent instead of full. I was left admiring much of the work, but also missing what had been achieved forty years ago by Siobhan McKenna when she played that scene in a more fully realistic context and to greater effect. In fact, I was more fully onboard with the production at intermission than I was at play’s end, as too many choices in that last act had me more aware of the director’s hand, less believing in the action onstage.
Holmes, however, does wonderful work with the actors. Eileen Walsh as Bessie Burgess (the role McKenna played) begins like a broad character out of EastEnders, but beautifully negotiates her transition into a more rounded and sympathetic woman. Janet Moran and David Ganly impressively set a delicate tone in and propel the first act. I think it is Lloyd Cooney whose brief turn as a mortally wounded soldier is so striking. My favorite of the cast, though, was Ciarán O’Brien as The Young Covey, the idealistic young socialist who isn’t above getting his when the looting starts. In addition to injecting energy, physical grace, and humor into each of his scenes, he sings wonderfully.
The Plough and the Stars
closes May 19, 2016
Details and tickets
Music is so important in the work of O’Casey; not only the music in the language, but also the songs he includes as part of the tapestry of the play, and some of the more subtle uses in this production — such as the whistling that underscores a costume change — are quite lovely. And speaking of costume changes, Holmes’ choice to have characters often change clothes onstage was, I felt, a very insightful touch, underlining how the insurrection blurred lines between civilian and combatant — “That’s not how to play the game,” more than one character says. (Or words to that effect.)
I’m going to give the production four stars out of five. That may seem high, given my hesitations about the production. But I’m glad I saw it, and what was good was very, very good.
The most frustrating thing about this visit by the Abbey is how brief it is. As I write, at about noon the day after opening night, you have only one more chance (tonight) to see the show. I know it’s a festival, and runs at festivals tend to be short, but it seems an awfully long way for this legendary company to come for such a short stay.
The Plough and the Stars by Seán O’Casey. Directed by Sean Holmes. Featuring Ian-Lloyd Anderson, Kate Stanley Brennan, Tony Clay, Lloyd Cooney, David Ganly, Rachel Gleeson, James Hayes, Liam Heslin, Ger Kelly, Janet Moran, Ciarán O’Brien, Nima Taleghani, Eileen Walsh, Nyree Yergainharsian. Production Associate Director: Ronan Phelan. Set Designer: Jon Bausor. Costume Designer: Catherine Fay. Lighting Designer: Paul Keogan. Music & Sound Designer: Philip Stewart. Stage Manager: Diarmuid O’Quigley. Produced by Abbey Theatre. Presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.