“Patriotism is not enough” mused Edith Cavell in 1915. “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” growsed Samuel Johnson in 1775. Sean O’Casey’s 1926 play The Plough and the Stars is set in the six-month period between November 1915 and Easter 1916 and, notoriously, it takes an even-handed attitude to patriotism.
This new production by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre is staged by Wayne Jordan with something of Brecht’s famous alienation or distancing technique. This is abetted by Tom Piper’s set design of drapes and scaffolding as well as the drab greys and olive green in which Joan O’Clary has costumed her cast. This is in one sense an epic play. It is also a very human tragedy with real people who are much more than just types.
Kelly Campbell as the young wife Nora who so desperately wants to escape a tenement existence with her husband gives a performance which is beautifully graduated from apparent frivolity to death-dealing despair. She matched by the two matriarchs of the crumbling, multi-tenanted house – Deidre Molloy as Mrs Gogan and Gabrielle Reidy as the equally bellicose Mrs Burgess. There’s also a touching portrait of the teenage consumptive Mollser by Roxana Nic Liam.
Dominating the male part of the cast is Joe Hanley as Fluther Good, one of life’s happy-go-lucky, rough-edged eternal survivors. We can understand why Jack Clitheroe turns against his wife through the pllitical and amorous sincerity with which Barry Ward invests the part, just as Laurence Kinlan’s Young Covey spouts his handed-down Marxist slogans with ruthless conviction. When the action moves to the neighbourhood pub, Kate Brennan’s Rosie, the good-time girl on her way down, illuminates the men’s focus on a different sort of might-have-been.
Overall, this is ensemble acting at its best. These ghosts from a still-resonating past take possession of the stage and turn visual drabness into a kaleidoscope of verbal colour through the cast’s obvious commitment to the director’s vision. The current tour visits two other UK theatres before returning to Ireland. You may not find it an enjoyable experience. You will definitely find it to be an impressive one and thoroughly worth your time and money.