In the anniversary year of the Easter Rising it is easy to see why the National thought that this was the way to go. A play by one of Ireland’s genius writers, written to reflect turbulent times of war, focusing on the working people. On paper, it looks like it could draw in the masses.
The majority of the actors are Irish; I was relieved. No dodgy accents tonight, I thought. No awkwardly American sounding vowels tonight, I laughed. Not tonight. Tonight, the lyricism of an actual Irish voice will wash over me, and I will relax, safe in the knowledge that I’m not listening to an old Etonian trying too hard. Maybe next time. In fact, in a bizarre move from co-directors Jeremy Herrin and Howard Davies, the cast all abandoned their own accents in favour of a much broader and thicker Dublin one. I can only guess that the reason behind this was an attempt at authenticity, to have one uniform accent for the entire cast, but it had the entirely opposite effect. It’s a wordy play; and I couldn’t make out a lot of the words. The inconsistency and general lack of clarity in the accents meant that the show had a pantomime tone that was hard to shake off. This was not helped by the fact that this was a very traditional take on a traditional play, down to the hammy fight scenes, the rigid blocking, and the general stodgy atmosphere.
Also traditionally, there were a lot of songs. In my party was a friend who is from an Irish family, who was able to explain to me during the interval that they were all well-known rebel songs, and she knew and sang them as a child. Context seems to be everything for this production, but none was provided. With a song every ten minutes, all of which you can guarantee will be alien to most of your audience, you need to make it doubly interesting. Instead, in a rather staid manner, the songs were sung simply and plainly, and then they were over. There was nothing put in place to ensure the audience knew their importance and their message.
So far, this isn’t sounding like a three star review; however one of the stars that I have given is, it must be said, entirely for Justine Mitchell, the powerhouse performer behind the wonderful character of Bessie Burgess. The inhabitant of the top of the tenement building, a unionist and alcoholic, Bessie sings ‘Rule Britannia’ as loud as she can to irritate her nationalist neighbours, calls God down upon anyone who dares cross her, and, when the fighting starts, takes the opportunity to nab herself a few nice hats from a broken shop front. Mitchell was utterly breathtaking and, for me, stole the show. She made the entire thing real, bringing a depth and truthfulness that the rest of the cast simply couldn’t match. Most extraordinary of all was (spoiler alert) her extended death scene. Minute in its detail and horrifying in its context, the entire theatre held its breath for Mitchell as she crumbled in front of us. I kept expecting there to be a cut of some kind, a blackout, anything which might mean we didn’t see everything. But, we did, and it was the most powerful thing I’ve seen on stage in quite some time.
My general bad mood coming out of the Lyttelton was, quite possibly, more down to the play than the production. O’Casey’s character of Nora was utterly baffling to me. In the first act, she is an exciting force onstage, a confident woman who seems to have a firm but tender grip on the ways of her family and neighbours, and who isn’t afraid to speak out. By Act 2 she is a screaming and crying ball of terror – and is also inexplicably heavily pregnant; the timeline leap of a year was only signalled to those with a program to read – and is desperate enough to stop her husband from returning to the Irish Citizen’s Army that she attempts to physically stop him from leaving, injuring herself and her baby in the process. By Act 3, which was in every other respect the best section, she is a complete madwoman. Having lost her baby and all contact with her husband, she goes completely insane. She wanders from room to room, hallucinating, screaming, babbling, and refusing to eat or sleep.
It was all heavily predictable from a play written in 1926. I shouldn’t have become as angry as I did; but I did. I felt that, in the very traditional interpretation that I had just seen, this representation of Nora was somehow being condoned. That it was felt that this character-arc was perfectly rational, truthful, and appropriate; this is simply not the case. In times of war, women do not go mad. They do not lose all grip on reality and retreat to a fantasy world. They hold down the fort, and always have done. The lack of depth to the character felt insulting to the legions of women who are living through war as I write.
I felt about Nora’s character the way I felt about the entire production; I could not understand why, in the troubled times we are currently living in, there was not some sort of contemporary update that the NT could have given O’Casey’s work. Despite an intricate set and historical accuracy, it desperately needed an invigorating current context. Instead, it was an extremely wordy history lesson, with nothing there to remind us of the pertinence of O’Casey’s satirisation of a dispossessed and disenchanted working class. There was no hint from the production that history might be repeating itself, as we sat there in the dark, in a capital city that rumbles with discontent.
The Plough and The Stars plays at the National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, until 22nd October.
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