by Lynn on September 16, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Canadian Stage Company, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Sean O’Casey
Directed by Sean Holmes
Set by Jon Bausor
Costumes by Catherine Fay
Lighting by Paul Keogan
Music and sound by Philip Stewart
Cast: Ian-Lloyd Anderson
Kate Stanley Brennan
Tony Clay
Lloyd Clooney
Hilda Fay
David Ganly
Rachel Gleason
James Hayes
Liam Heslin
Ger Kelly
Janet Moran
Ciarán O’Brien
Nima Taleghani
Nyree Yergainharsian

A poetic play commemorating the Irish Rebellion of 1916 set in contemporary times because, alas, this story of war, animosity, religious, philosophical and political differences doesn’t end. The production is both gripping and moving.

Background Note: The Plough and the Stars made its debut at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1926. There were loud protests regarding how the characters were depicted by relatives of the actual people involved. “The Plough and the Stars” refers to the banner used by the Irish Citizen Army. 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the Irish Rebellion of 1916.

The Story. While the play deals with the build up to the 1916 Rebellion in Dublin, the play actually centres around the ordinary people trying to cope with the turmoil around them. Playwright Sean O’Casey focuses on the inhabitants of a tenement in the centre of Dublin. They long for privacy even though people just barge into their apartments. Protestant and Catholics have issues with each other with religion being at the heart of their animosity. The Young Covey is a socialist making fun of and spouting economic jargon to the elderly Peter Flynn, who dresses up in his Irish Citizen Army regalia full pomp and ceremony, but without really a trace of commitment to the fighting cause. The cause is for an independent Ireland, once and for all severing its ties to England. The 1916 Rebellion happened at Easter over 6 days in Dublin when the Irish Citizen Army took over several public buildings and did battle with the British Army. The battle was bloody and brutal.

At the opening of the play, many of the characters are getting ready for a meeting for the liberation of Ireland from British rule. Jack Clitheroe is a bricklayer and a former member of the Irish Citizen Army. He thought he would be promoted but it didn’t come so he’s bitter about it. Nora Clitheroe is his strong-willed wife. Peter Flynn is Nora’s elderly uncle who dresses in his formal uniform, complete with plumed hat ready for the meeting. The Young Covey is a fitter, a communist, a cousin of Jack’s and a constant annoyance to Peter. The Young Covey constantly razzes Peter about his old fashioned ways and lack of forward thinking. Bessie Burgess is a Protestant street fruit-vendor who still morns the loss of her son in the World War I. Mrs. Gogan is a Catholic charwoman. She and Bessie Burgess are at constant odds about the morals and character of the other. Fluther Good is a good natured carpenter, trade unionist, and sweet chap who refers to himself in the third person. Mollser Gogan is the young daughter of Mrs. Grogan who is dying of consumption.

There are various other characters, usually in the military; a prostitute, and a barman, but the play centres on the inhabitants of this tenement.

The Production. Act I takes place before the rebellion. Act II takes place in the middle of the fighting.

At the beginning of Act I a young woman hurries on stage from the audience. She stands in front of a ‘curtain’. She wears modern clothes. She holds sheet on which she reads the lyrics to the Irish National Anthem. She sings it in an initially wobbly voice that gets stronger. Some members of the audience quietly sing it with her. She coughs. She coughs louder and more violently into the paper with the lyrics. She holds the paper out to us and it’s got splashes of blood on it. We learn later she is Mollser Gogan. In 1916 this is a sure sign that she has consumption.

The curtain then goes up slowly to the accompaniment of loud rock music. Jon Bauser’s set is spare and suggestive. Stage left is the outline of a high multi-level wood structure representing the tenement house where most of the characters live. Fluther Good repairs the door knob on the door to the Clitheroe apartment. People come in at will. Privacy is not an option.

The tenants in the tenement are slowly introduced along with all their gripes, complaints and winging about their neighbours. Relationships are established. The humour comes as easily as their irritation with their neighbours. While a scene is being played on the stage, I note that high up in the tenement a woman sits in profile watching what I imagine is a television. Stage right of that is Mollser, also in profile, looking intently at her cell phone.

For some of Act I the pace seems sluggish—the cost I suppose of all those characters having to make their points and to establish their relationships. That said, Sean Holmes’ staging is intricate but fluid in the characters’ interactions. And by adhering to O’Casey’s every word in his 1926 play, but seeming to set it in the modern day (rock music, modern dress for the most part, television, cell phone). Sean Holmes is making a clear statement. While The Plough and the Stars is specifically about the 1916 Rebellion in Ireland, it is as timely as the civil war in Syria or South Sudan, or Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world there is political, religious, philosophical strife.

In Act II the wood structure representing the tenement is now positioned in the opposite end of the stage from Act I. At the beginning of Act II it slowly topples to the ground thus representing rubble and the effects of the Rebellion that is still raging. This time the pace of Sean Holmes’ direction goes like the wind as people run for cover when shots are fired; characters discover the glee in looting; there is danger from a sniper and the effects on the people in the tenement and he skittish British army desperate to find him.

The acting is superb from top to bottom with David Ganly playing a good natured Fluther; Kate Stanley Brennan playing Nora Clitheroe first as a formidable, confident women, and then a broken woman after she has a personal tragedy; and Ciarán O’Brien as a passionate communist who never passes up a chance to tease a gullible soul.

The Irish accents are clear and easy to understand from my point of view.

Comment. Sean O’Casey has written one of the most poetic, lyrical, angry, prescient plays about rebellion, conflict and oppression of the 20th century. And while it deals with a bloody, perilous time in Irish history it is full of the specific Irish humour; the turns of phrases are dazzling. And the humanity just burst through the play. For all the griping and complaining of their neighbours these are people caught in the middle of violence, taking great chances to help each other. It’s almost Greek in its structure in that most of the gory bits happen off stage, although you see the results of that violence on stage.

The Abbey Theatre Company hasn’t been here in 26 years. Short of going to Dublin to see them when you want you would be very wise to race to the Bluma Appel Theatre to see this wonderful production of The Plough and the Stars before they close their short run on Sunday, Sept. 18.

Presented by the Abbey Theatre

Opened: Sept. 14, 2016.
Closes: Sept. 18, 2016.
Cast: 14; 9 men, 5 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Sharon Evans September 23, 2016 at 9:22 am

Hi Lynn
Always read your reviews . We did rush out to see the play.Got hearing aids to help with the accent. (My husband does have a hearing problem) He and many around him did not hear at all. I read the program and was able to follow but still had great difficulty with the women,especially Mrs. Gogan. The acting was excellent and I’m glad that I saw it for the historical significance. The theatre was packed – and lots of young people.
You must have had better seats than we had
Sincerely, Sharon Evans(one of the ex theatre group ladies)