Review – The Plough and the Stars – National Theater


After ten years in the UK, I find I still know so little of the history of the land I live in. The Plough and the Stars is being produced in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising: but I had never heard of this battle, which was a much deadlier incident than the Boston Tea Party. Knowing the date that it happened, though (1916) – the years of the first world war being very sharp in my mind due to the numerous centenaries being marked over the last several years – I had to say I was shocked to see (on stage) a rebellion taking place IN IRELAND right during the middle of the first world war. Jesus Christ on triscuit, kids, this did NOT look like something that was going well, and whoever was planning all of those speeches taking place outside of a bar during the second act (or, well, the second scene in the first act) seemed to be pretty willing to deal out domestic warfare when the whole “country” (Great Britain, perhaps the disunited kingdom) was at war with an external enemy. You can look at this as a person ignorant of history and look at how things are going in Syria and thing, yep, domestic insurrection, the powers that be are going to smash that flatter than a pancake in the same way that disobedient soldiers are shot on the battlefield.

The Plough in the Stars, like Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, is set in Dublin slum. The characters are all in each other’s business, and are pretty well occupied with the hard work of keeping food on the table and taking care of ill relatives. This time, however, it’s the excitement of working for the independence of Ireland that sweeping people’s thoughts (well, the men’s thoughts) and motivating them; but somehow, when the fighting actually gets started, everything disintegrates into messiness, and looting, and death, and shooting, and the ridiculous indignities of battle that ultimately prove that, while it may be done for higher ideals, it’s pretty much a losing game for the poor and civilians. (And, if you’ve seen his play The Silver Tassie, you’ll see that O’Casey is of the opinion it’s pretty shit for the soldiers as well.)

 l-r  JUSTINE MITCHELL (Bessie Burgess) and JOSIE WALKER (Mrs Grogan)  photo credit Johan Persson

JUSTINE MITCHELL (Bessie Burgess) and JOSIE WALKER (Mrs Grogan) photo credit Johan Persson

Frustratingly enough, I once again found myself struggling uphill against the Irish accents, able to catch about two thirds to a half of what was said on stage. Worse, I quickly found I did not care about the characters. Women scrapping in a bar? The insults may have been funny but only as a respite from listening to lectures about communism and the local sex worker complaining about how bad trade was due to the incipient revolution. A big pay off came in the final act, though, which featured a mad scene that outshone Ophelia and Lucia di Lammermoor in my eyes … a wonderful, realistic depiction of someone going off their rocker and how it really affects those around them. And there was a delicious, emotional death scene … you can’t have war and disease like you did in Dublin without some death … and O’Casey wrote it spot on (and if you don’t know I’m not going to spoil it for you) … nicely capturing how actually very slow and painful it all is, not like in the movies or most of Shakespeare. I don’t want to say that watching people die is boring but it is actually much slower than it usually happens and I loved the experience of walking through this with a character I’d become rather oddly attached to by the time the grim reaper came calling. So, overall, this night was not without its good moments, but I don’t think Sean O’Casey is a writer whose works I can appreciate.

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on Wednesday July 27, 2016. Thank you to Theatre Bloggers for organizing my trip.)

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