Imagine, if you will, my dismay at handing over €70 for two theatre tickets at the Cork Opera House! I had just paid €36 for two tickets to Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (Frank McGuiness) at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and €18 for two cinema tickets at the Gate Multiplex, Cork. How could this be value for money?
But… The Plough and the Stars…? I love the play having seen it twice before, once in 2012 on the Abbey stage, directed by Wayne Jordan and starring the award-winning, Denise Gough (see above)
and before that in 1977, when the late Susan Fleetwood was nominated for an Olivier at the National Theatre in London (see left). It is always a must-see.
So clearly, as it was on my door-step, this visit was a no-brainer. And I have rarely been disappointed by Abbey Theatre shows, all previously seen at the Abbey itself.
I am not such a fan of the Cork Opera House as the stage is too large for many visiting sets and the auditorium is too large for most actors’ projection. It works better as a backdrop for concerts and opera, as one might expect knowing its origin as a venue for local productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
Perhaps I shall have to pop over for the National’s 2016 production, directed by Howard Davies, especially as I note that the Travelex tickets are only £15.
But what of the show I saw on Friday? I was not impressed by my seat in the Upper Circle and I was unable to follow the dialogue during the first half as I could not hear properly even though the actors were forced to shout to reach audience members at the back. It was better after I popped into the front row of the stalls during the interval.
What’s to like? What should make you rush to Wexford, Limerick or Galway to catch this production? The poster is probably enough to put you off your full Irish breakfast.
Even the waiter in the House Café warned me, ‘Oh it’s very contemporary but worth a try”. And my friend Roy said he did not like the look of the trainers. But I said to him ‘Go. Get a ticket for the last night in Cork’. Did he? I don’t know, but I hope so.
It’s a production of amazing clarity. I absolutely love the work of its director Sean Holmes. I first saw his work when he was with Filter. I saw their Twelfth Night at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007. I saw the production again, twice, at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. I saw Filter’s Caucasian Chalk Circle at the National in London. I saw Holmes’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Three Sisters and Blasted at the Lyric, Hammersmith, where he is artistic director. For the latter I had to spend some of the time kneeling on the floor and peeping over the seat in front like a small child watching Dr. Who. I would probably cross an ocean to see one of his productions.
In an excellent interview with Peter Crawley of the Irish Times (see also his review), Holmes states that the Irish ‘might get very, very cross that some English bloke has come over and desecrated a classic’. It is easy to see that some audience members might consider the production a desecration. And it is shocking to see the naturalism taken out of the play. But I shouldn’t have been shocked. After all Holmes treatment of Three Sisters was his rebellion against the ‘many British productions [which] seem to treat Chekhov as if he was a Victorian gentleman’.
For The Plough and the Stars Holmes has chosen to take the Brechtian, alienating, approach of acknowledging ‘the audience a lot. And talk[ing] to them. Because I think that the play lends itself to that. It’s an odd mixture, a sort of presentation of reality as opposed to a facsimile. You’re really aware, all of the time, that you’re watching a play’. So the style is declarative. The actors are choreographed, for much of the time, to face the audience rather than each other, and they directly address the audience.
The non-naturalistic set, designed by Jon Bausor, and which I think is excellent, is minimalistic and centred around a three-storey lighting tower, representing the tenement block. Excitingly, and in front of the audience, the scaffold is dropped onto its side in Act Four to represent, I think, the breaking of the dream. Characters huddle inside it like wounded ants in their nest. British soldiers bestride the top of the horizontal structure and British gunshots are notably far more powerful than earlier ones from the rebel snipers.
Slightly embarrassed by his status as an Englishman, Holmes explains that he sees the play as ‘an argument with Ireland . . . This play is as much about 1926 as it was about 1916. It was an argument with the new state and the betrayal of the promise, as O’Casey saw it, of what the [Plough and the Stars] flag represented for an alternative type of state’.
At the same time Holmes is confident of the play’s contemporaneity: ‘O’Casey was reacting against an oversimplification and a mythicisation of a very complicated, messy and contradictory event. So what you put on stage is all of those things: ideas of nationalism, the complexity of the continued relationship with Britain, the relationship with gender. All those things remain contemporary’. Holmes achieves the contemporary feel with costumes and props, as well as songs: there is a mic. stand available to the actors for use whenever they need to give voice. But all these technical elements span the century which has just elapsed, with a 1940s frock for Nora, a 1980s sofa bed and songs from the nineteenth century to rave music. So the play is seen to be about all eras and all places – generalising from the specific as Brecht would have done.
Performances are strong, although I thought Ciarán O’Brien, as the young covey, played for laughs in a heavy handed manner. Eileen Walsh, first seen in Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs, as Bessie Burgess, moved me the most. Holmes makes the final section between three women: Bessie, Mrs Grogan (Janet Moran) and Nora (Kate Stanley Brennan) the feminist centre of the play. It feels like Masha’s final speech in Three Sisters: ‘They’re leaving us… one of them’s gone for good… for ever! We’re left alone … to start our lives all over again. We must go on living … we must go on living…’.
Writing in the Guardian, Helen Meany sums up the production succinctly, ‘Scraping off the accretions of performance history, this production succeeds in being very moving, while asking insistent questions about social justice that often get lost in the fray’.
Chekhov, A. Three Sisters. Moscow: Adolf Marks. 1901
O’Casey, S. The Plough and the Stars. London: Faber Plays. 2001.