Part of the purpose of a National Theatre is to bring back to the light plays of historical significance – and its decision to revive Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars in the anniversary year of the Easter Rising is a brilliant one.
This is the play that caused a riot in its first run at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1926 – partly thanks to the collision of the word ‘prostitute' and the low-goings on in an Irish bar with the high-flown rhetoric of Irish Republicanism, and the words of its martyr Patrick Pearse. But it is less often performed than The Shadow of a Gunman or Juno and the Paycock, the two plays that precede it in O'Casey's trilogy.
Set in and around an Irish tenement over nine months leading up to the 1916 Rising, it culminates at the conclusion of the bloody fighting, when troops were in control of the streets, the rebels arrested and 450, including many women and children, were dead. O'Casey doesn't tell you any of this, but lets the unfolding events form the background to his focus on the lives of the impoverished characters he brings vividly to life.
In the first two acts, they roister and argue, picking petty arguments that prefigure the life and death struggle to come. The themes are clear: Nora, pretty wife of Jack Clitheroe, begs him to put his love for her against his desire to fight for an independent Ireland; Bessie Burgess, the Protestant upstairs, has a son fighting on the Front and despises all the vainglorious posturing of her Republican neighbours; the Young Covey makes the argument that the only real freedom is economic and without an escape from poverty nothing will change for these people.
But they spring out of action that is naturalistically chaotic, clear-eyed about the failings and foibles of Irish nationalism and life in general. High comedy rubs up against deep seriousness. In the middle of the fighting, Bessie and Mrs Gogan set their squabbles aside to load an ancient pram high with the spoils from a looted shop; Fluther, a carpenter and trade unionist, broiling for a fight - "I hit a man last week and he hasn't fallen yet" - steals so much alcohol that he is almost incapable of movement (Stephen Kennedy's rolling stagger is one of the evening's joys); Gogan's daughter sits sadly on a stool, dying of consumption, almost unnoticed.
The language, though entirely realistic, ripples and shimmers, full of profound poetry, tipping into darkness as the tragedy deepens. It's an extraordinary play and beautifully served by the production, directed by Jeremy Herrin when his co-director Howard Davies became ill. The cast are uniformly excellent, entirely convincing, living in the skins of their characters. The women in particular eat at your heart from Judith Roddy's brave but doomed Nora, to Josie Walker's Mrs Gogan, all religious aphorism and prejudice, to Justine Mitchell's broiling Bessie, a woman given to singing "Rule Britannia" out of windows at the height of the rebellion yet capable of quiet and selfless acts of heroism that stand in marked contrast to all the male posturing.
I had some reservations about Vicki Mortimer's monumental sets, that span the entire width of the Lyttelton stage. They are striking (and beautifully lit by James Farncombe) but they have the effect of making the action static rather than intimate. But it is a minor worry about a magnificent, heart-felt revival of a major play.