Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 19 January, 2005

When Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey in Dublin, first staged The Plough And The Stars in 1926, the audience were so incensed by author Sean O’Casey’s ambivalent treatment of Irish nationalism that they rioted.  Eighty years later, the same play was staged for the Abbey’s centenary. That 2004 production has now come to London.  It’s quite conservative, even old-fashioned, but nevertheless it works.

Like O’Casey’s The Shadow Of A Gunman (seen at the Tricycle a couple of months ago), the play centres on a knot of Dublin tenement dwellers, just before and during 1916’s Easter Rising.  Almost all of them voice nationalist sentiments, but only one actually enlists in the rebel Citizens’ Army.  The others take advantage of the chaos on the streets to brave the crossfires and loot shops. It’s almost a carnival.

Ben Barnes’ production includes several prominent Irish actors, such as Olwen Fouéré, John Kavanagh, and the now-legendary Eamon Morrissey, famous for his one-man Flann O’Brien shows.  As Fluther Good, Morrissey is in his favourite vein: a feckless, bibulous but somehow still likeable specimen.  Indeed, it’s this paradox of candid roguishness and yet affection that’s at the heart of O’Casey’s best writing.

O’Casey’s political views, too, were so complex as to seem contradictory.  He acknowledged that the Fenian cause, and many of its adherents, had their faults. And yet these flaws co-exist with an underlying nobility, both of the cause and its everyday support.  In his plays, cynical comedy rubs up cheek by jowl against intense, poetical emotion. It’s this strange tangle that goes to make up the Irish character.

At over two and a half hours, Barnes’ production is on the slow side. Nor does it radically re-imagine the play.  This is pretty much the same Plough And The Stars you could have seen at any time between its composition and now. Its power, then, is in the play itself.  And it’s remarkable how much power the piece still has, even unadorned as it is here. It’s still surprising, a bit puzzling, but at bottom affecting.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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