Mollser Gogan takes to the stage of the Abbey, climbing up from amongst the audience dressed in a Man Utd jersey and a pair of battered runners. Standing in front of a lone microphone, she slowly begins singing Amhrán na bhFiann from the page held in her hands. Her voice is clear and sweet, and some of the audience dutifully join her rendition.
But as she approaches its climax, a brutal fit of coughing stops her in her tracks. She perseveres, but the hack gets worse until she’s almost doubled over. Suddenly, she expectorates blood all over the white page she had been singing from; the page on which our nations hallowed air had been transcribed unto. With that, the curtain rises and music pulses as the tenements of a century ago are resurrected in contemporary Dublin.
90 years after inciting riots in this very theatre, O’Casey’s masterpiece is still no stranger to controversy.
One could be forgiven for wincing at the thought of a modern interpretation of The Plough and the Stars, one-third of O’Casey’s famed theatrical trilogy chronicling the less-heroic aspects of Dublin’s revolutionary years. This might stem from the haphazard shape of similar reinterpretations which lack any contextual cogency in a contemporary setting.
Or else it could be weariness against the avalanche of everything and anything 1916 related we’ve all had to endure over the past few months (again, I refer to the Proclamation chocolate bars).
But director Sean Holmes has, for want of a better expression, absolutely nailed this.
The set design is magnificent. A towering scaffold brilliantly illustrates the cramped confines of the Dublin tenements, while also proving extremely versatile from scene to scene. As characters traipse up and down its skeletal frame, we’re reminded of our modern apartment blocks as well as the infamous tenements. Other elements of the stage, particularly the centred bar counter of Act Two, serve their purpose wonderfully as characters bounce off and around them in the throes of revolutionary fervour.
One of the most effective props used in Act Two exists in the mind of the audience, aided by clever lighting, crackling audio, and the flick of a remote control. With the characters frequently turning towards the fourth wall as if it were the screen of a television, Pearse’s blood-soaked speech from the grave of O’Donovan Rossa pulsates through the auditorium, channelling the nationalist propaganda of the time through a contemporary medium.
The acting is faultless, and the trio of Fluther, The Young Covey, and Peter Flynn (Ganley, O’Brien and Hayes respectively) are particularly enjoyable as they personify the wildly contrasting ideals of the Rising in a hilariously irreverent fashion. And although they may have the audience in knots through their bickering and boasting, the underlying folly of their idealism shines through.
Kate Stanley Brennan is sublime as the beleaguered Nora Clitheroe, while Janet Moran and Eileen Walsh also put in solid performances as the often-warring Mrs. Gogan and Bessie Burgess.
The satirical power of the script perhaps comes across too forceful in some scenes however, as some pivotal turns of pace were completely lost on the audience. Indeed, the tragedy of Nora’s early labour flies over the heads of some audience members, laughter still rolling around the stalls from Fluther’s drunken escapades moments before.
Again, as British Tommies descend upon the tenements in the closing act, something is missing. Their presence never really amounts to any palpable kind of apprehension. You sympathise with the sorry state of the characters mired by war and loss, but the tension this danger should bring never fully materialises.
Apart from this, Holmes’s reimagining of O’Casey’s classic just works.
It retains the irreverent spirit and the enviable flow of dialogue from the original. And although it’s modelled as a contemporary setting (looking at times like an episode of Shameless), the issues don’t lose their relevance.
In fact, despite the decreased likelihood of riots sparking off in the Abbey of 2016, there were more than a few gasps of shock when it appeared that Mrs. Gogan was going to breastfeed her infant in front of us in Act Two.
Maybe we’re not all as culturally advanced as we’d like to think.
The Plough and the Stars runs until the 23rd of April in the Abbey Theatre.
Following performances at the Abbey Theatre, The Plough and the Stars will embark on a tour of Ireland and North America.
Cork Opera House – Tuesday 26 – Saturday 30 April
The National Opera House, Wexford – Wednesday 4 – Saturday 7 May
Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick – Tuesday 10 – Saturday 14 May
Town Hall Theatre, Galway – Tuesday 24 – Saturday 28 May
NORTH AMERICAN TOUR
(in association with Cusack Projects Limited)
IRELAND 100: Celebrating a Century of Irish Arts and Culture at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC American Repertory Theater, Harvard University, Massachusetts
Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, University of Pennsylvania Peak Performances at Montclair State University, New Jersey Southern Theatre, Columbus, Ohio presented by CAPA and The Ohio State University.