The Plough and the Stars

Frankie McCafferty, Laurence Kinlan and Joe Hanley in the Abbey Theatre production of 'The Plough and the Stars' by Sean O’Casey. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Frankie McCafferty, Laurence Kinlan and Joe Hanley in the Abbey Theatre production of 'The Plough and the Stars' by Sean O’Casey. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Sean O’Casey’s classic tragi-comedy has for long been strangled by its realist form. To glance through the text is to get side-tracked by detail. Every cup and saucer, every chair, every changed location (and there are four distinct spaces over four acts) is described as if the writer is creating an entirely new and unfamiliar universe. However, Wayne Jordan’s stylish, brave production at the Abbey Theatre sweeps away the representational rigour of O’Casey’s drama and brings an expressionistic epic quality to the work instead; a quality that O’Casey himself brought to every play he wrote after The Plough and the Stars, beginning with The Silver Tassie and ending with The Drums of Father Ned - and which is already hinted at in the difficult second act that O’Casey refused to cut during rehearsals for the premiere production in 1926. Jordan’s decision to de-clutter the play, to abstract it from its original form, brings an exciting clarity and freshness to the play, even if at times the technicalities he demands from his production team let him down.

A vivid red theatre curtain frames the stage in its opening moments and the actors saunter onto the stage, bringing with them bits and pieces of Tom Piper's deconstructed set. A large ash-grey crate provides a centred playing space; half-dressers and mis-matched chairs are scattered across the illusion of a room, and doors swing back and forth in invisible walls, as if set-up deliberately for some slapstick gags.

Tony Flynn and Joe Hanley in the Abbey Theatre production of 'The Plough and the Stars'. Photo: Ros KavanaghThe opening brass gestures of Conor Linehan’s score set a clownish tone. We might be entering a silent movie from the 1920s, and our introduction to the characters contributes to this heightened atmosphere. Joe Hanley, an actor born to play in an O’Casey work, saunters forward and eyeballs the audience. With his bowler hat pushed back upon his head, his slack jaw hinged by a ginger mustache, and his loose, long-armed way of walking, this Fluther looks like Buster Keaton. Cathy Belton’s Mrs Gogan, meanwhile, is heard before she appears, her “Excuse me! Well excuse, me”-s immediately reminding us of one of the central messages of the play: the ambiguity of language, a tool of persuasion and power and control rather than a vehicle for meaning. When Belton finally enters the visible stage space she is almost ghoulishly white-faced with dark painted eyes, and she doesn’t so much speak as gasp, playing with the playwright's exhausting sentences and speeches and projecting much of it directly to the audience. This heightened performance style is carried through by many of the actors - most significantly by Gabrielle Reidy as Bessie Burgess in the first three acts, most successfully by Kathy Rose O’Brien as Rosie in the second act. This performative quality quietens as the fourth act commences and tragedy takes over, ensuring a sobering, moving and heroic finale to the play, which is traditionally stretched towards melodrama.

One of the most controversial interventions that Jordan makes as a director is to bring The Figure in the Window onto the stage. O’Casey’s script deliberately keeps this political orator off-stage in silhouette as a means of highlighting the distance between the rhetoric of political mobilisation and the earthy reality of his central characters. This sort of strategy is a classic alienation technique, which Brecht would make his own in the 1930s. Jordan effectively underscores what he intends with this radical gesture: the unfolding action of the play shows that the personal and the political do not exist discretely, and as Peter Hanly marches across the bar to deliver his speeches, the intrusion of this world, in which the characters have neither interest nor investment, is made clear.

Barry Ward, Denise Gough and Dara Devaney in the Abbey Theatre production of 'The Plough and the Stars' by Sean O’Casey. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

However, Hanly’s journey is only one of several poorly executed transitional moments in the production, most of which revolve around the fussy over-use of hanging back-cloths and flags at different key moments in the production. The red velvet curtain and large dirty white sheet, which are used at the start and the end are effective in their simplicity, but the backcloths printed with a terrace of decaying tenements and the several flags which are dropped down or zipped in on a fly system are unnecessary, poorly timed, and on opening night failed to be presented smoothly even once.

In fact, they prove to be an aesthetic distraction from a production which effectively celebrates the profound human power of O'Casey's play. The specific politics of O'Casey's play ultimately are irrelevant. The Plough and the Stars provides us with more fundamental, more universal truths about human relationships and how heroism can be found in the most unlikely places.

Sara Keating writes about theatre for The Irish Times and The Sunday Business Post.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Plough and the Stars by Sean O'Casey

27 July - 25 September, 2010

Produced by The Abbey Theatre
In The Abbey Theatre

Directed by Wayne Jordan

Set Design: Tom Piper

Costume Design: Joan O’Clery

Lighting Design: Sínead McKenna

Music and Sound Design: Conor Linehan and Ben Delaney

With: Cathy Belton, Dara Devaney, Mark Fitzgerald, Tony Flynn, Denise Gough, Joe Hanley, Peter Hanly, Laurence Kinlan, Frankie McCafferty, Ciarán O’Brien, Kathy Rose O’Brien, Emma Eliza Regan, Gabrielle Reidy, Natalie Radmall-Quirke, Karl Quinn, and Barry Ward.