To mark 100 years since the Dublin Easter Rising the National Theatre is staging Seán O'Casey's masterpiece THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS - a damn sight more appropriate than the Globe's awful TAMING OF THE SHREW, a decision which still has my head a-spin.
I had never seen the play before and, indeed, my only O'Casey play seen onstage was in 2000 at the Grammercy Theater in New York when I saw the transfer of the Donmar's JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK. I missed the National's production of THE SILVER TASSIE in 2014 so was determined to see this. I am glad I did, it was one of the most thrilling nights I have had at the National in ages.
The play famously was the cause of a riot after it opened in 1926 but to know why you have to go back to the roots of Irish nationalism. John Casey was born into a protestant, middle class family in Dublin, and slowly became interested in Irish nationalism; after joining the Gaelic League in 1906 he changed his name to Seán O'Casey. His involvement in worker's rights led him to become General Secretary of the Irish Citizen Army - a militia of trade union members to protect workers while on strike. He resigned however when he felt the militia was corrupting it's socialist principals by becoming allied with the Irish Volunteers, a military organization fighting for Irish nationalism.
In 1913 O'Casey had been involved in the Dublin Lockout, the Irish version of the General Strike, and had been appalled that the Irish nationalists had not supported the strikers and he had a particular dislike for the Republican and teacher Patrick Pearse who continued to use the transport system during the strike although the transport bosses were violently against the strike. O'Casey took no part in the 1916 Easter Uprising but must have been given pause knowing that his ex-Irish Citizen Army colleague Jim Connelly and Pearse were both executed by the British in the aftermath.
Ten years after the uprising he premiered his third great play staged by the Abbey Theatre THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS and a few nights after it's premiere there was an organized riot by Republican women in the theatre which intensified with the arrival of Pearse's mother soon after. But why choose the play to riot? Because O'Casey had dared to flout the belief that the uprising had been the results of martyrs attempting to cast off the yoke of British bondage and had used parts of Pearse's rabble-rousing speeches in his second scene where a prostitute is trying to pick up men in a pub where outside a Republican gathering is taking place.
The genius of O'Casey's writing is that he uses the uprising as a device to focus on the effect of civil war on the non-combatant people in the danger zone, people whose petty squabbles and attempts to get on in life are thrown into turmoil by being witness to, and in the cross-hairs of, two warring sides.
O'Casey sets his play in a tenement building on an anonymous Dublin street in 1915 where the swirling anti-British feeling is growing louder on the periphery of the lives of the tenants. In and out of each other's lives and rooms, the tenants strike up friendships that last only up to the next argument. Two widows - the catholic Mrs Gogan and protestant Bessie Burgess - hate each other and are always rowing, although Bessie always spares time for Mrs Gogan's consumptive daughter Mollser.
However what they both agree on is the proud ways of Mrs Nora Clitheroe who also lives in the tenement. But the recently-married Nora is arguing with her husband Jack as he has discovered she hid a telegram from the Irish Civilian Army which gave him orders to be part of the upcoming insurrection. Also in and out of the tenement building are Fluther Good the carpenter, The Young Covey a root and branch communist fitter and Norah's uncle Peter, an old-time Fenian Republican. Also floating through the men's lives is local prostitute Rosie Redmond.
Over the Easter weekend 1916 however, the characters' local streets become dangerous sniper alleys as the English army retaliate against the Republican Uprising and while Bessie Burgess shouts 'God Save The Queen' from her attic room, pregnant Nora goes quietly insane with fear at Jack's safety on the front line. Fear gives way to excitement when the locals start looting but as the violence becomes more random and arbitrary, no one is safe.
THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS has the feel of a typical Howard Davies production but he fell ill during it's set-up and Jeremy Herrin stepped into the breach. The pace has an unrelenting quality once the uprising starts and the final scene has an unsettling, almost inevitable, conclusion. If I have a criticism of the production it's that Vicki Mortimer's sets tend to look lavish when filling the Lyttelton stage which is a bit of a disconnect when you consider the characters are supposed to be living in near-poverty.
An excellent ensemble of actors brings O'Casey's play to life but two performances in particular stood out: Judith Roddy gave us an impassioned Nora Clitheroe, losing her reason at the unknown fate of her husband and the death of her newborn child, while Justine Mitchell was truly remarkable as the seemingly hard-hearted protestant Bessie, proudly declaring to her neighbours that her son is fighting for King and Country on the Western front, but ultimately showing sympathy to those she has castigated. Her final moments in the play will not be forgotten by anyone who sees it.
The final moments are given over to two British soldiers who take over the tenement building to flush out a Republican sniper and who help themselves to the tea that Bessie had made. They drink their tea and wistfully sing Ivor Novello's sentimental "Keep The Homefires Burning", the irony being that Bessie had been doing just that for her son away in France.
At the end of that Easter weekend in 1916, 450 people were dead. O'Casey's play stands as a reminder that over half of that number were civilians including 40 children. Watching the fear and terror that swept the tenement building was also to be reminded that this was happening as we sat watching the play, in Africa, in Syria, in the Palestinian territories....