The Plough and the Stars, National Theatre, review: “devastating, scathing and strikingly textured”
PUBLISHED: 12:00 08 August 2016 | UPDATED: 12:44 08 August 2016
Seam O’Casey’s play about life in Irish revolution remains relevent with National Theatre’s interpretation of The Plough and Stars
When the curtains are pulled back to reveal the wrecked walls of designer Vicki Mortimer’s meticulously rendered tenement – a set that also suggests the hinterland and casualties of WW1 – O’ Casey’s foreboding is made crystal-clear: the destiny of this group of impoverished lives will be devastating.
Co-directors Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin keep the focus on the purity of O’ Casey’s dialogue.
The play opens in November 1915 and plain-speaking Nora (Judith Roddy) is blind-sided when husband Jack (Fionn Walton) discovers his ‘little, red-lipped
girl’ has hidden a letter sent from the Citizen Army, promoting him to Captain.
While the play is predictably scathing about the British military, it is also highly critical of the rebels. Communist Covey (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), with his tedious devotion to Marxist theses, also gets a grilling.
In one finely staged scene, rebel leader Pearse’s demagogic rally cry is heard through a pub wall as warring matriarchs Bessie (Justine Mitchell) and Mrs Gogan (Josie Walker) cat fight over female respectability. It’s these layers that ensure the play’s durability.
Female roles are strikingly textured: frustrated intelligence in this heavily gendered community is a ticking time bomb.
At times, when the play hits high notes of melodrama, the writing dates but the underlying humanity redresses any imbalance.
Whether huddled together playing cards and joking, or shielding grief-stricken Nora from the sight of a hearse carrying a teenager after Nora’s baby was stillborn, O’ Casey’s message is as relevant now as ever: politics shot through with the language of evangelical redemption is dangerous. Political rhetoric saves no one but compassion may.