There’s something in the lungs of Sean O’Casey’s tragicomedy. “A curious kind of gaspin’ for breath”, observes the carpenter-come-philosopher Fluther Good (a sympathetic David Hanly). In a contemporary setting, this might warn of something other than rampant tuberculosis in overcrowded tenements, especially if sick youth Mollser (Mahnoor Saad), dressed like an economic migrant, coughs blood while singing the Irish national anthem.
In a bold update for Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, director Sean Holmes makes the best work of O’Casey’s Plough in years. Upon arrival to their flat, Nora Clitheroe (Kate Stanley Brennan) and her husband Jack (Ian Lloyd Anderson) settle into one-room accommodation familiar from recent footage of Ireland’s housing crisis. Domestic details of Jon Bausor’s wrought set, dominated by a tower of scaffolding, make privacy hard to come by.
These tensions from this close proximity give weight to the encroaching militarism of the Easter Rising, with Lloyd-Anderson’s disaffected Jack desperate to transcend his circumstances while Stanley Brennan’s powerful Nora fights to save him. Other areas don’t feel as well measured: the farce-like furore between the communist Covey (Ciarán O’Brien) and the patriotic Peter (James Hayes) is surprisingly tame. However, the guileless Mrs Gogan is a subtle player in Janet Moran’s terrific turn, while Eileen Walsh’s Bessie Burgess is stirringly on the brink.
O’Casey’s play spits out ugly truths, and while holding to account the troubles currently choking Irish society – housing shortage, depressing living conditions for asylum seekers – is probably beyond The Plough and the Stars, this does feel like progress.