Review: The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey

Contributed by John Gibney

The Plough and the Stars is back on at the Abbey. And why not?

It is hard not to mention it without thinking of the controversy that greeted it in 1926. But does that mean it is actually any good? It is the longest and most expansive of Sean O’Casey’s three Dublin plays, in dramatic and thematic terms, and crucially, it is the most verbose. But the Abbey pulls it off. This is a very impressive production of a notoriously acerbic play. For those who did their Leaving Cert at the wrong time, it is set in a tenement, a pub, and a tenement again, before, during and after the Easter Rising. And that is about it. The Plough does not have a plot so much as points to make. What gives its stature as a classic is that O’Casey made those points through characters rather than caricatures. What makes this production stand out is that the actors do justice to those characters. The first half is an excellent and hugely entertaining display of ensemble acting (either that or I should get out more), with Joe Hanley’s Fluther Good stealing the show by a country mile. Abbey actors are unlikely to live in tenements, so some of the accents do wobble. But in a world where depictions of Dublin’s working class and unemployed all too often turn into patronising caricatures, we can let the national theatre off the hook here.

On a more serious note, it is striking to see O’Casey’s waspish vision return to the stage in 2010. In many ways The Plough foreshadowed the distinct critique of Irish nationalism that was lazily categorised as ‘revisionism’ (though this might prove that ‘revisionists’ weren’t quite as clever as they thought). O’Casey’s bitter depiction of Irish nationalism as the province of blowhards and spoofers was the product of his own disillusioning experiences. Yet The Plough goes beyond such specifics in its depiction of a world torn asunder by hollow ideology. For all of its comedy it is a truly dark play, and its author possessed an unnerving eye for human weakness. It is about the human cost of a revolution, most especially in the form of the tragic tale of the Clitheroes that lies at its heart. But his attack on nationalism is often highlighted – perhaps conveniently – at the expense of his depiction of the shocking class divisions left behind by imperial rule. And given the amused reaction of the audience when the woman from Rathmines makes her brief and bewildered appearance in Act 3, I was inclined to wonder if the Abbey was following suit.

But, quibbling aside, this is a very good version of The Plough and the Stars. The prolonged melodrama of Act 4 is a weak spot, though the problem there is the text rather than the production. The acting is generally excellent. Cathy Belton’s depiction of the appalling Mrs Gogan and Kathy Rose O’Brien’s Rosie Redmond deserve to be singled out, though Denise Gough’s accent in the pivotal role of the social climber Nora Clitheroe did occasionally let her down; Nora hadn’t quite climbed that far. I had my doubts about the set, but it truly was the backdrop: the performances stole this show. To paraphrase Uncle Peter, it looks like business, and is well worth seeing.

The Plough and the Stars continues at the Abbey Theatre until 25 September 2010:

John Gibney was formerly an NEH fellow at the University of Notre Dame and a Government of Ireland fellow at NUI Galway.

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17 Responses to “Review: The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey”

  1. patrick maume Says:

    Two points I have noticed in reviews of past productions:
    (1) Bessie Burgess is often played with a Northern accent, because audiences (and perhaps producers/authors) can’t relate to the idea of there having been a working-class Dublin Protestant Unionist population in the period.
    In the same connection, I remember seeing the Joseph Strick film of ULYSSES some years ago and wondering what was missing from it as compared to the novel, and when I saw the Nightttown scene in which Bloom is dressed up in royal regalia I realised it was the presence of the British administration, the references to Edward VII, te British army etc (the Strick film is ostensibly set in 1960s Dublin, so that the two soldiers who get into a fight with Stephen and Bloom are members of the Irish Army, noty the British one – though Bloom is still canvassing advertisements for the FREEMAN’S JOURNAL, rather than any 1960s paper!).
    (2) Some years ago I remember the producer of a production commenting “We have devised a splendid costume for Uncle Peter” in a manner which suggested ignorance of the fact that the Irish National Foresters with their Robert Emmet costumes were an actually existing organisation, rather than something O’Casey had invented from thin air.

  2. Frank Says:

    I saw The Plough and the Stars, Juno and the Paycock, The Silver Tassie and Shadow of a Gunman twenty years ago in Dublin. While I enjoyed the plays, the only one I might venture to see again would be Shadow of a Gunman. Recently, there was a discussion about the 1990 staging of The Silver Tassie and the controversy surrounding the showering of poppies on the stage that year. I can’t remember any such controversy but then again I was a month shy of my 18th birthday at the time. Perhaps my fondness for Shadow of a Gunman partly stems from the fact that I tried unsuccessfully to get a ticket for the play at the box office on a December evening in 1989 and was about to leave the theatre when I was offered a free ticket by a businessman as one member of his corporate booking couldn’t make it to the play.

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