Review of The Plough and The Stars

Donal O’Falluin reviews the Abbey’s new version of one of its most controversial plays, Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars.

“It appears certain that Nationalism has gained a great deal and lost a little by its union with Labour in the Insurrection of Easter Week, and that Labour has lost much and achieved something by its avowal of the National aspirations of the Irish Nation”
– Sean O’Casey.

This is undoubtedly one of the most controversial plays to emerge from The Abbey, with the riots during its 1926 run well documented. These disturbances were, among other things, reactions to the sight of a prostitute on stage, the appearance of the Irish flag in a public house and the use of the words of P.H Pearse. For some, the play was seen as dismissive of the ideals of the men of 1916.

When The Abbey later refused The Silver Tassie, in 1927, O’Casey left it behind him. The Abbey has never been able to leave O’Casey behind it however, and The Plough and the Stars has returned to its stage on numerous occasions. This latest performance, directed by Wayne Jordan, is one I’ve been eagerly awaiting for months.

I have seen this play performed in the past in a way that did not quite do justice to the weight of characters like The Covey and Fluther. They’re supposed to be passionate, and nothing if not loud. Joe Hanley could not have got Fluther better, a loveable character despite all his faults.

Lines from Pearse’s The Coming Revolution, as well as other sources like his famous oration at O’Donovan Rossa’s graveside, are delivered by The Figure in the Window (almost eerie stuff from Peter Hanly), and as Pearse declares that “bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood”, one can see the tragedy ahead, something O’Casey regarded as the inevitable conclusion of the merging of labour and nationalism.

Great credit is due to the team behind the set design, lighting and costumes. The feeling and atmosphere of a small, tenement house is captured perfectly, as are the sound of distant guns or singing soldiers on their way to the front.

There were many tourists at the performance, several commenting on the affordable nature of Irish theatre, at least in an international context. It is most worrying then to read the ad taken out by the National Campaign for the Arts in the play programme warning of the potential cuts to the Theatre. “Its cost to the state is modest, but its worth is great”, it notes.

The cultural significance of the Plough and the Stars cannot be denied – after 80 years the play still capable of sparking debate not only on whether the Rising itself was justified, but if its goal was ever anything higher than freedom “not worth winning in a raffle”. It deserves to be presented like this, in a manner showing great attention to detail.