The Plough and the Stars

Sean O'Casey may not himself have fought during the infamous Easter Rising of 1916 but, nonetheless, his play is still borne of personal knowledge and first-hand involvement. Written only 10 years later, still in the midst of passionate belief and violence from both sides, The Plough and the Stars was seen as such a comment on the politics of the time that it created both popularity and riots.

By the time that the real personal tragedies unfold in the bloody war in the final act the whole thing has been so 'acted' that it is difficult to be moved.

Today in this new production at the Lyttelton – surprisingly, given the output, needing two directors in Jeremy Herrin and Howard Davies – it feels 'politick-lite', touching lightly on love and loss but with elements of melodrama and farce with its two-dimensional angst-ridden caricatures, over-emotional (and yet also emotionless) delivery and busy stage play. Is it moving? Is it dark? Does it have a message? Maybe – but I'm not sure if it had any objective other than to come across as clearly having true Irishness at its heart (which it does well but without surprise) and so it seems to have forgotten that it had anything else to do or say.

The first half (Acts I and II of IV) deals with the mobilising of workers' armies to fight the British oppression, as experienced by the real people living hand to mouth in the tenements of Dublin – and we see bricklayer Jack Clitheroe's anger at his wife Nora for not passing on the message that he's been made a 'Commandant in the Irish Citizen Army', charged with leading a faction of the war that should be embraced.

There's a lot of anger to be seen here with husband, wife, uncle, cousin, neighbour, friend et al constantly bickering about all manner of things – most unimportant (at first), often unintelligible, so harsh monotone much of the delivery here as everything only slightly varies in its level of shouting. Which means that when the anger – and subject matter – is really important, we don't really notice it's any different. And so we don't really care. Even the audible shocks of gunfire and explosion in Acts III and IV can't punctuate the screeching and shouting we are constantly being put through.

It's difficult to believe in any of the relationships we are seeing here – or the passion that lies beneath those – or the beliefs that put different characters on different sides of the war. They seem more like mouthpieces around which events are unfolding, rather than actually being involved in them. We may believe where they are supposed to be as designer Vicki Mortimer (who clearly knows how to take advantage of the stages and revolves at the National as seen very differently in The Threepenny Opera also on in rep) has created the most beautifully detailed depiction of the country at the time, with flats, pubs and streets subtly framed with crumbling bricks and ammunition based debris.

But the actors don't seem to want to be on the set for long. They're at the will of direction that seems too often to be made up of badly choreographed fights, clunky crowd scenes and a tumult of unnecessary stage exits and entrances that feel like you can actually hear the directors yell "get off" or "cue" – and so they only seem on stage to say the lines given to them. Indeed, during Act II – set in a bar as the meetings that soar the passions take place outside – the poor barman treks the whole width of the stage to continually leave and come back again so often (based around his lines) that he may be advised to invest in a Travelator before the run ends.

By the time that the real personal tragedies unfold in the bloody war in the final act – with the expected deaths, madness and pain affecting those that remain – the whole thing has been so 'acted' that it is difficult to be moved. My last attempt to suspend disbelief was shattered just prior to this by watching drunk acting that was befitting of stage school rather than our National Theatre. The result is little more than clichés and possible stereotype in a piece that feels dated and unloved. I'm not sure whether the initial muted applause at the end was due to some being moved or possibly because of our unbelievability in the unbelievability of the last two and half hours.

Reviews by Simon Smith

Dorfman Theatre

The Prisoner

Dorfman Theatre

Home, I'm Darling

Olivier Theatre

Exit the King

Royal Court Theatre


National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy

Lyttelton Theatre





The Blurb

From November 1915 to Easter 1916, as the rebellion builds to a climax half a mile away, the disparate residents of a Dublin tenement go about their lives, peripheral to Ireland’s history.

Sean O’Casey places a fixed lens to watch as a dozen vivid characters come and go – selfless, hilarious and desperate by turns – while the heroic myth of Ireland is fought over elsewhere.

To mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, the National stages an epic new production of O’Casey’s greatest play.