Review: The Plough and the Stars

In the year 1916, the Abbey Theatre’s touring production of iconic play, Kathleen Ní Houlihán by WB Yeats, was staged in Limerick. Abbey Director, Fiach Mac Conghail, highlighted this fact at the opening night of The Plough and the Stars—a play set in that fateful year—on October 30 in Mary I’s new Lime Tree Theatre. I think everyone present was glad that this historic relationship between the national theatre and our city has now been renewed.

While there is perhaps a duty to produce classic plays, there is always a risk of being lazy and formulaic. When the play debuted in 1926, there were riots such was the strength of the reaction. This production of The Plough and the Stars seems to inject some of that fiery energy into the play—making the events of nearly a century ago fresh and vital. Director, Wayne Jordan, put a vibrant stamp on this timeless Irish play.

Transferring the focus of the birth of the nation from the bombed out GPO to a local tenement house must have been considered an unusual move by the playwright. Far removed from the glory of the urban battlefield, the poor struggle on regardless. This microcosm still focused on idealism, sacrifice and helplessness in various ways over the four acts, with politics coming in ebbs and flows throughout. I didn’t expect the amount of humour and music in the play either; that was a pleasant surprise.

Firstly, the set was excellent. It was very detailed; girders marked out the rooms and the scene changes had a great ceremony to them. Coupled with the rich sound, sound design and lighting, the actors marching and moving props etc around were a spectacle in themselves. The use of suspended flags was a lovely touch. The set’s versatility was put to good use with the bar in the pub scene doubling as a podium for the speaker at the army meeting (modeled on Pádraig Pearse), for example. Everything flowed well.

The acting from the ensemble cast was brilliant all round. Jack and Nora Clitheroe (Barry Ward and Kelly Campbell) are at the centre of the play. The couple—once like a pair of cooing doves—are torn apart when Jack rejoins the Irish Citizen Army. He eventually fights in the Easter Rising. He came across as a cold character overall in his anger at and his rejection of Nora; not quite idolised as a fallen hero. Nora’s fragile state of mind deteriorates throughout the play as she tries to make Jack choose between love for her and love for his country. Her hysteria verges on hyperbole but just about manages to be believable. The star-crossed lovers are both pitiable figures by the end.

Most of the other characters live in the tenement house. Nora’s sometimes pompous uncle, Peter (Frankie McCafferty) and Jack’s cousin and ardent socialist, The Young Covey (Laurence Kinlan) liven up proceedings with their comic rivalry. The latter’s politics gives food for thought as well as an insight into the trade union movement at the time too.

I thought Fluther Good (Joe Hanly), a witty and good-natured carpenter, was probably the most memorable character. He injected a lot of lively banter and fun into the play, but still managed a credible performance in the sadder moments. Mrs Burgess’s (Gabrielle Riedy), son is fighting in the Great War and she is opposed to the nationalist uprising. There is a very human side to her though, as she cares for Nora in her confused state at great cost. Gossipy Mrs Gogan (Deirdre Molloy) and her seriously ill daughter, Mollser (Roxanna Nic Liam); prostitute, Rosie (Kate Brennan) and a selection of military men feature too. The sense of community in the slum was admirable.

There were many striking scenes, particularly in the final ones as the suppression of the rebellion brings death and destruction to the residents. The portrayal of both literal and emotional conflict is masterful. There is a sense of chaos and uncertainty by the end and not freedom and hope as the uprising sought to achieve. It may be unflattering and bleak but it is realistic. The interaction of all these things makes The Plough and the Stars a very interesting play.

The Abbey brings quality to any production and it’s great that plays of this calibre are touring, and coming to Limerick. The Lime Tree’s state of the art set-up is ideal for theatre and it has several kiddie’s shows, musicals and pantomimes as well as comedy and music still to come in 2012. It will welcome more groundbreaking theatre in 2013 with DruidMurphy—the legendary Galway company’s take on a trilogy of plays by Tom Murphy.

More info at www.limetreetheatre.ie.

The Plough and the Stars not to be missed next week

Local theatre fans are in for a treat next week when The Abbey Theatre brings the Sean O’Casey classic, The Plough and the Stars, to the new Lime Tree Theatre in Mary Immaculate College.

The play got rave reviews and marks a momentous occasion as the first Abbey Theatre main stage production to come to Limerick in over two decades. The tour only visited a handful of places in Ireland and the UK and it will conclude in our own fair city for seven performances from October 30 to November 3. Hopefully, it will be the first of many more local visits by the national theatre.

The plot is as follows: “Set in a tenement house, against the backdrop of the Easter Rising in 1916, The Plough and the Stars is both an intimate play about the lives of ordinary people and an epic play about ideals and the birth of our nation.”
“Amidst the tumult of political upheaval, Jack and Nora Clitheroe are ‘like two turtle doves always billing and cooing’, much to the ridicule of their bustling neighbours.  But when Ireland calls, Jack must choose between love for his wife and duty to his country. Heartbreaking, disturbing and very funny, The Plough and The Stars is an historic play that every generation needs to see.”

Director, Wayne Jordan, has been praised for bringing an “invigorating” perspective and “exciting clarity” to the play. I saw his recent venture, Alice in Funderland, and was really blown away so I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with this iconic piece. Chalk it down for an upcoming review.

The ensemble cast includes Kate Brennan, Kelly Campbell, Dara Devaney, Mark Fitzgerald, Tony Flynn, Gavin Fullam, Joe Hanley, Keith Hanna and Laurence Kinlan among others.

Tickets are available from the box office on 061-774774 and www.limetreetheatre.ie. It runs from Tuesday to Saturday next week nightly at 8pm and there are two matinee shows on Wednesday, October 31 and Saturday November 3 at 2.30pm. Tickets are €30/€22 (conc.) and €16 for daytime performances.

Review: Alice in Funderland

I went to see the musical, Alice in Funderland, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin last weekend. I think it’s taken me until now for all of the production by THISISPOPBABY to sink in.

I should preface this by saying that I really like musicals. I like them because they’re not just dramatic with some of best songs and arrangements; they are nearly always uplifting. There is something brilliant about people spontaneously bursting into song. It should happen more in real life!

Alice in Funderland is aptly named because it is like a funfair—bright, colourful, frenetic and exciting. It is also risky.  It’s the first musical to grace the national theatre in two decades. The show has Irish current affairs and the seedy underbelly of society at its core.

There’s another twist. It loosely follows the plot of fantasy fairytale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The heroine falls down a rabbit hole into a strange world inhabited by all manner of characters. Corkonian, Alice, is on her sister’s hen night in Dublin, when she gets lost. She meets Warren (get it) and feels a cosmic connection after they kiss. He disappears and she goes in search of him—leading her to ‘The Castle’ and the Queen of Hartstown isn’t happy. But will it be happy ever after or “Off with her head”?

The music is all pop/dance inspired, mostly upbeat. The live orchestra filled out the sound. When combined with an all singing, all dancing ensemble cast, the songs were really good. They were nothing if not original! It all took place on an electric blue stage and every piece of the set screamed colour. The video screen backdrop was inspired. Likewise, the costumes were funky and flamboyant; occasionally outrageous with everything from PVC bondage gear to big dresses straight out of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

The writing was edgy and funny. It was heavy on curse words and black comedy. It satirised all sorts i.e. banking, gangland crime, afternoon television, pop culture and Irish stereotypes (although I bet tourists were a bit lost in parts). The dialogue was often self referential, parodying conventional theatre and panto. This is a musical with a high degree of self-awareness. It’s confident even when the jokes are cheesy enough to elicit groans from the audience. For all the banter and one-liners, there was depth. The clueless Alice isn’t only searching for Warren, but for something more.

That said parts of the musical cut pretty close to the bone. For example, two track-suited sisters singing about ‘torsos in the banal’ could be construed as mildly insensitive (a reference to the so-called ‘Scissor Sisters’). Overall, I felt it was a little too long. There was a slight lull in the middle—not in the performance as such but the plot dragged a bit.

Most of the actors played multiple parts and injected something unique into every one, as well as singing. Sarah Greene related the fragility of Alice well. The choreography was impressive and must have been difficult in parts but you’d never know, it was performed so seamlessly.

The creative team made a thoroughly modern musical. Particular praise is owed to producer Jennifer Jennings; director, Wayne Jordan; Phillip McMahon for the story and lyrics and composer, Raymond Scannell.

Alice in Funderland had bold energy from start to finish. It has an admirable swagger and shows that new writing is a risk worth taking for our national theatre.

It runs at the Abbey until May 12. More details on www.abbeytheatre.ie.