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The Plough and the Stars. Again, Again, Again.

March 19, 2016


The Abbey Theatre has mounted (according to its own website) 56 productions of Plough and the Stars since 1926.  56.  Think of it.  This means that there has been a production of Plough at the Stars at the Abbey Theatre – most years.

If, as the PA system tells us every performance, the Abbey Theatre is Ireland’s National Theatre, and the Plough and the Stars is performed there most days – then the Plough and the Stars is, by some quantifiable measure – Ireland’s National Play.

Except that it’s also Ireland’s Anti-National Play.  What other nation would stage a bitter debunking of the central nation-building events of the state’s self-mythologising foundation and stage such a play slap bang in the middle of the very place where these events took place (or didn’t take place)?  And do this most years?  Imagine if the Great American Play was a piss-take of the Declaration of Independence showing up the rebellious colonists as drunken looters and then  imagine if this play was staged most years on Broadway and in Washington DC.

Part of the reason why we haven’t really notice all these Plough productions, is they’ve been hiding in plain sight – or rather – during the tourist summer season.  It’s the kind of play that it is assumed tourists will want to see.  This means, of course, that pompous, self important theatre goers like me, the kind of people who actually go to the theatre on their own, are going to avoid most of these productions like the very plague.

But this is, of course, 2016.  There was a kind of a grim inevitability about shifting the Plough from the summer to the spring so that it coincides with the centenary.  March and April are all about serious and innovative drama rather than tourist drama, so if the Plough is to be shunted there something “new” has to happen to it.   This Plough is directed by Sean Holmes who (despite his name) is English – based at the Lyric Hammersmith.  And Sean Holmes claims never to have seen this play before.  Now I don’t think you could find anyone working in Irish theatre who could make such a claim.  In fact, in terms of acquiring an uncluttered perspective on the play, I’m rather surprised that Hammersmith is far away enough.  I’d have thought a guest director from the National Theatre of Vanuatu might be called for.


Sean Holmes is no stranger to the Abbey Theatre though.  A couple of years ago, he directed a play about Irish-American gangsters called Drum Belly here.  I noted a repetition of the striking Drum Belly effect of writing on the Abbey Stage using human blood.


At the beginning of this production, immediately after the proud recorded announcement that this is the National Theatre, Mahnoor Saad, playing little Mollser,   sings the National Anthem – or rather, sings most of the National Anthem before collapsing into a consumptive coughing fit.


And the play turns out to be set… in a sort of present day.  Sort of.  Fluther, Flynn and The Young Covey would not look out of place in 1916.   Nora Clitheroe, Mrs Gogan, Bessie Burgess and Rosie Redmond would get arrested in 1916 but look at home in the 21st century.  These anomalies seem very studied and thoughtful.  The insurgent Irish forces are dressed in 1916 military dress.  But the British squaddies who appear at the end are very twenty-first century, straight from Afghanistan or Iraq.  You are left with a heightened sense of technological inequity between those who volunteer from the streets and those who have the backing of the state (or a state).


The aim of the production is to communicate on a large scale and with a small cast – a sense of claustrophobia and suffocation.  This is a world where nobody has privacy to change clothes.  Where the privacy required for love making is constantly threatened.  People keep bumping into one another.  Doors don’t open and close properly.


The way to stage politics on stage (he says with supreme uninformed unprofessional pretension) is to advertise the competitive finitude of space.  Who is there room for?


The collision between Marxist revolutionary rhetoric and an older nostalgic revolutionary rhetoric is staged, of course, between Peter Flynn and The Young Covey.  It is unlike O’Casey to nail any colours to any mask, and despite his own socialist background and allegiances, Covey is satirised as much as Flynn.  Ciarán O’Brien excels as a Marxist who is, at heart, a poet – who loves the word “proletariat” more than he loves the proletariat.  The Young Covey’s real aspiration is not to become a revolutionary, but to become a kind of village schoolmaster.  He is, in fact, as archaic a figure as Flynn, a figure out of Oliver Goldsmith, who parades his authority by means of  jawcrackers.  His is a love of language, a passion for Marxist terminology which sounds, in his mouth, quite mellifluous and mystical.  Covey is, needless to say, useless in a crisis.


The beautiful uselessness of words is further evoked through the technique of the bartender who switches Pearse speeches on and off with a remote control.  The voice of Padraig Pearse is oddly high-pitched – passionate but desperate.  I was reminded of the joke in the classic 90s spoof news programme The Day Today, making fun of the broadcasting ban on republican politicians, where it is announced that such and such a  Sinn Fein speaker has been forced to ingest helium to reduce credibility.


This production was planned as part of a commemorative programme called “Waking the Nation” (WTN).  When it was instantly spotted that no women were included as dramatists, then a movement was instantly formed called “WTF!” – which stands – of course – for “Waking the Feminists”.  In classic guilty liberal “dog ate my homework” mode – the Abbey invited the large and well organised WTF movement onto its own stage – and a conversation was initiated.   Part of this kind of pitch invasion is represented by Mary McAuliffe’s short essay on the history of women protesting the Plough which follows the inevitable piece by Diarmaid Ferriter.   (For the year 1916, Dairmaid Ferriter has been cloned many times over in order to fulfill his endless speaking and scribbling commitments.)  The Plough was troubling enough for feminists in 1926.  It is troubling now.

It’s not that the women in Plough are weak characters.  It’s more that they are all depicted as thoroughly disengaged from the Independence Struggle.  Rose Clitheroe is Dublin’s answer to Andromache waving goodbye to Hector.  It is hard not to sympathise with Jack’s complaint that Rose has been showing him up with her tearful pleas to please come home.  Mary McAuliffe notes that even the pacifist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, widowed by the Rising, felt that the play traduced the memory of 1916 and all that it had meant for those caught up in it.  Many historians have noted that women played every conceivable insurgent role during the Rising and were Hectors as well as Andromaches.  Cumann na mBan members tended to evolve into anti-Treaty rather than pro-Treaty activists.   Regardless of the “rights” and “wrongs” of militant insurgency, these rights and wrongs do not divide on neatly gendered lines.


Is it possible to mount a subversive restaging of Plough and the Stars?  I was pleased to read some comments from some people who absolutely hate Holmes’ production – who regard it as a desecration of a classic.  Good.  There’s something deeply depressing about the idea of a production of Plough and the Stars that does not enrage people.  A production which everybody loves would be a betrayal.  Holmes does surprising things with this play – makes certain things satisfyingly strange – and makes good use of inappropriate music.  As I keep saying – I hate “appropriate” music on stage – which merely amplifies an oversimplified mood, which betrays a lack of confidence in text and actors alike.  I like inappropriate music which offers some sort of critical commentary on what you vaguely thought you ought to be feeling.


But what would a successfully subversive staging of Plough actually look like?  Since the whole play is a subversion of nationalist orthodoxies – presumably the most subversive staging of the play would end up reinforcing nationalist orthodoxy.  Perhaps a kind of patriotic pageant play would end up being the most brilliant subversion of all.  Does Holmes do this?  He does not.  Perhaps that staging just isn’t available.  Holmes’ production reinforces the importance of the cough, of the involuntary and repetitive voice of consumptive mortality that is its own eloquent reply to all political pieties – nationalist or otherwise.


This is a play about poverty.  The Act III street scene is most effectively realised – its hardboard shambles evoking a very contemporary sense of improvised and inadequate housing and its fragility heightened by the sound of very modern bombardment blasts.  When the rather slow witted British squaddies want to know how many men there are in these tenements, it’s clear that this is not such an easy question to answer.  And the coffin of Mollser – front and centre is a constant reminder of the preventable consumptive deaths that deserve to be registered alongside the official 1916 casualty list.


O’Casey’s drama obsessively reminds us that we do not experience charity from the people we expect, that war does not claim lives in the fashion proclaimed in the brochure and that not only does heroism not guarantee victory – it often fails to guarantee any very heroic version of defeat.  The wrong people get killed in the wrong way in the wrong place and in the wrong order.   The staging innovations that Holmes brings to the table gives a context beyond Dublin 1915-16 for these truths – truths which are certainly not shop-worn or outdated in a twenty-first century context.


It is fair to be angry with this production.  Indeed anger is necessary.   Anger that uses terms like “butchering a classic”  is somewhat misguided – given the deliberate provocation of the play as written.

It is fair to be angry with the play itself.  The association of femininity with political quietism is cognate with a larger concern with the dramatic suggestion that quietism is preferable to political engagement (whether socialist or nationalist).  Cynicism is convenient, from the point of view of any number of Powers That Be, and Plough and the Stars risks being a very convenient play to keep staging, over and over again.


The current production coincides not merely with a centenary, but with a period of political uncertainty.  Right now, we sort of don’t have a government.  We don’t know what our political future is to be right now.  Who are our lawful rulers?   The endless delays caused by Kenny and Martin’s attempts to cobble together a coalition have not, however, led to mass looting on Henry Street or Martial Law being declared.  Our expectations of democratic governance appear to have retreated somewhat.  An energy has been lost.


Fairer than being angry at either the Holmes production or the O’Casey play is being angry at the gap between the Proclamation and its realisation.  The most productive anger concerns housing, nutrition, gainful employment and the freedom to live and love one another in warm and safe and sociable surroundings.  Putting flesh on the abstractions as proclaimed.


Forcing a conversation between Padraig Pearse and Mollser’s cough.


Indeed, Plough and the Stars is a rare play insofar as fits of coughing from the audience constitute not an annoyance or an interruption of the performance  – but rather a valid and eloquent engagement with it.



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