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.