Set in a tenement house against the back-drop of the Easter Rising in 1916, Sean O’ Casey’s play seems a peculiarity. Epic in theme and in length, it is, at first sight, a tale of ill-starred lovers at a time of upheaval. But the real meat of the play is in the wealth of character, that surround and often stand in for the pair, and the extraordinary richness of the language; ornate and crenulated, long strings of sentences that stretch out to near breaking point.
Frank McCafferty’s Peter Flynn, a ludicrous coxcomb in green livery, waving his sword around while attempting to get his collar to behave, is continually ‘thwarted’ by The Young Covey, (Laurence Kinlan) the cuckooing communist, who is, in turn, disgusted to learn that nobody has read Comrade Jenersky’s Thesis. Gabrielle Reidy’s Bessie Burgess, a Greek chorus as irritant, has the most diverse language in the play. Prone to delivering the crudest lines, she is also given to extraordinarily poetic outbursts. ‘They’ll be layin’ down their white bodies shredded into torn and bloody pieces on the altar that God himself has built for the sacrifice of heroes,’ she says. It is a testament to the strength of the text and, in no small measure, to Reidy’s acting chops, that these extremes seem perfectly viable, wrapped up in a complex and conflicted character.
Best of all is Joe Hanley’s Fluther Good, a Dublin Tom Waites with a comb-over, all rasping bark and drunken pugilist’s shoe shuffle, forever finding things “derogatory” regardless of the appropriate context. He is the heart of the play, a Dublin everyman, drinking, fighting, gobshiting but, crucially, for all the bravado and posturing of the rest of the cast, the only one who gets things done. He defends Rosie’s honour (vividly portrayed by Kate Brennan as ‘a daughter of the digs’), he rescues Nora and stands up to the Tommies.
At the centre of the play are the cardboard couple of Jack and Nora Clitheroe, (Barry Ward and Kelly Campbell, respectively) and their tragic romance. Initially ‘like two turtle doves always billing and cooing’ they are torn apart by the idealism of the age and disappear. Jack into the uniform of the Irish Citizen Army and Nora into madness, a slumming Ophelia, confined to her sick bed by Bessie, rising up only to be dragged back down, like James Brown at the end of a concert.
Wayne Jordan’s direction is crisp and if the endless draping of flags across the set, accompanied by Conor Linehan’s martial music, seems a bit heavy handed it’s the only problem with this, surprisingly spritely, three hour production. Barring the British soldier’s oddly Australian accents, that is.
The Plough and the Stars is a triumph of ensemble acting, the language engaging and witty, and the performances assured and energetic.
The Plough and The Stars can be seen on tour at An Grianán, Letterkenny September 25 – 29, Cambridge Arts Centre, Cambridge on October – 6, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham on October 9 – 13, Theatre Royale, Bath on October 16 – 20, Siamsa Tire, Tralee on October 23– 27 and Cork Opera House, Cork October – Saturday 3 November.