There’s a tried and tested formula to Sean O’Casey’s 1926 play The Plough and the Stars: he makes us care for his cast of quick-talking, hard-drinking Irish men and women, and then he makes us watch as their lives fall irrevocably apart. The sense of inevitability doesn’t make it any easier.
The play caused riots – led by O’Casey’s own mother – when it was first shown in 1926, owing to its ambivalent depiction of the 1916 Easter Rising. O’Casey, a Protestant who went on to become a member of the Irish Citizen Army but declined to fight in the bloody insurrection, doesn’t object to the cause itself but to its effect on the working classes. As ever in war, the worst affected were those at the bottom of the chain, ordinary men and women whipped into a nationalist fervour and asked to lay down their lives.
We follow Jack, a young would-be officer in the uprising; Nora, his feisty new wife; Covey, a cocky socialist who questions the intentions of the nationalists (perhaps the closest analogue to O’Casey himself), Fluther, an ageing labour movement man, as well as various other slum-dwellers struggling to eke out an existence.
The uniformly strong cast duck and roll with a script that bounces between comedy and absurdity before bedding into gut-wrenching tragedy; Judith Roddy’s Nora is particularly impressive, showing strength and fragility as a woman frantically worried about her husband.
Vicki Mortimer’s set is a spectacular, crumbling recreation of an Irish tenement, although it does have a tendency to dwarf those living within it; perhaps that’s the point.
The use of folk songs as a means of emotional control – to stir or to soothe – is a recurring device; the haunting song that closes the show will play in your mind long after you leave the theatre.
First published in City A.M.