Never a happy ending…

“Don’t expect people to live happily ever after,” was Jan’s warning for any theatregoers going to any of Sean O’Casey’s plays. And that certainly held true for the ‘The Plough and the Stars’ at the National.

This gripping production of the inevitable consequences for ordinary decent people of the catastrophic leadership of the 1916 Irish uprising was a comic then tragic horror story with so many resonaces for the modern day – whether the conflict is armed or verbal. Plays about ordinary lives of ordinary people, of whatever class, often descend into senseless avoidable tragedy. There is nothing heroic in the Plough and Stars. Any more so than there is in Romeo and Juliet, or the Great Gatsby, or Cathy Come Home. Nor are there any heroes.

It does take a little time to get used to the Irishness of the accents. So much so that at half time I complained of the cod-Irish I was hearing, only to be admonished that the bulk of the cast were actually Irish – mea culpa. It’s a little like getting used to lilt of an early English version of Chaucer, but once you’ve caught the melody of the accent it becomes much easier. Easier to follow and a harder watch as the grim brutality unfolds.

I love a rotating set and the massive tenement interior rotated to an exterior, a pub, and a new interior for the final scenes of death and despair. The set changes were smoothly handled and the sets themselves detailed representations of wartime tenement life. When the leading player, Nora Clitheroe played by Judith Roddy, is unable to persuade her husband not to march to the call of the Irish Citizen Army, one can see the tragedy ready to unfold in front of you against this massive backdrop.
As with the ‘Juno and the Paycock’ – the only other O’Casey play I have seen – the women are the strong characters and those who bear the most of the suffering. That doesn’t mean that they are without fault themselves – Nora’s  lack of any sympathy for a dying soldier and the readiness of others to set off on a looting spree during the breakdown of law and order of the uprising being simple examples. It is hard to have any real empathy with any of the characters but your capacity for sympathy will be stretched to the limit.

With all the men being characterisations, almost caricatures, to tell the story of the uprising – the republican soldier, the union man, the communist, the bombast, the politician – the publican is the one person who seems to live in the world we can readily identify with. Indeed his constant exhortations to the abusive men and women in his bar to ‘speak easy’ seems somewhat resonant of today’s exhortations to calm the excesses of social media comment.

The six months of this story line are effortlessly compressed into the the two and half hours or so of the ruling time. I think that was enough. Although there was much humour in the play it was harrowing enough to make me feel somewhat drained at the end. I have no idea how the cast manage to deal with it day after day.

If you are going to see a play about the everyday story of pre-revolutionary (failed) city folk this is probably it. I can see why it was not universally acclaimed when first performed in 1926, at least by the republicans who felt they could do no wrong. But republican or loyalist or agnostic it’s a tale worth the seeing of today.