It’s a hundred years since the Easter Rising and ninety since Sean O’Casey’s play about it provoked an organised riot. The protestors were republican women who thought it mocked the rebellion. During that first production at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1926, an audience member punched two of the actresses and gunmen made a kidnap attempt.
Nine decades on, The Plough and the Stars has stood the test of time and O’Casey is hailed as one of Ireland’s finest playwrights. Watching it in 2016, it doesn’t come across as anti-nationalist: although he clearly abhorred the violence that patriotism fuelled, there’s sympathy for the rebels. Most of all, he was concerned with the impoverished Dubliners whose bleak lives were blown apart by history.
We see the Easter Rising through their eyes. Like his first two plays, almost all the action takes place in a shabby tenement inhabited by a colourful cast of characters. Captain Brennan is a chicken butcher by day and a trussed-up Irish Citizen Army soldier by night. The Young Covey believes socialism not nationalism is the answer.
Fluther the carpenter is more interested in drink than politics, while Mrs Grogan is too busy gossiping and looking after her baby and consumptive daughter. Bessie Burgess’s son is fighting for the British in the First World War and newlywed Nora Clitheroe doesn’t want her husband Jack to be an officer in the Irish Citizen Army. (Invest in a programme if your knowledge of the various nationalist miltias is patchy.)
Fionn Walton as Jack Clitheroe and Judith Roddy as Nora Clitheroe
The first half takes place in November 1915. Out on the streets, the nationalists are stoking the fires of patriotism. Inside the tenement, O’Casey’s anti-heroes live in each others’ pockets and are quick to quarrel and even quicker to brawl. It’s always a surprise how funny his plays are – and the directors have made the most by milking the more slapstick sequences.
The second half takes place in Easter Week 1916 and is much more harrowing, although not without its lighter moments – such as when Mrs Grogan and Bessie Burgess put aside their differences to go looting.
There’s no heroism in these parts. When Jack flings aside a heavily pregnant Nora and returns to his commandant duties, her despair is heartrending. In the next act, she’s demented with grief and her madness is as eloquent as Lady Macbeth or Ophelia’s in the hands of Judith Roddy, who’s utterly mesmerising.
It’s not the only moment that feels almost Shakespearean. O’Casey’s characters are gloriously garrulous, painting vivid scenes in their broad accents, each with their own endearing quirks of speech. (It’ll be a long while before I hear the word “derogatory” without thinking of Fluther). Then there’s their penchant for breaking into poignant song.
Above all, O’Casey’s potent blend of comedy and tragedy really packs a punch.
The Plough and the Stars is at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre until 22 October