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The Plough and the Stars review at Lyric Hammersmith, London – ‘lacks a clear vision’

Kate Stanley Brennan and Ian Lloyd Anderson in The Plough and the Stars at Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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In 2016 the Abbey Theatre in Dublin staged Sean O’Casey’s 1926 masterpiece to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, an event whose gunshots and horror disrupt the world of the play.

It’s taken two years for Sean Holmes’ Dublin production to make it to the Lyric, and maybe something has been lost in the translation from the Abbey. Maybe it was a more powerful piece on the Easter Rising anniversary. Here it feels like the contrast’s been turned up too high: bright colours, big performances.

Ciaran Hinds, an O’Casey habitué, has said that his language is as if he’s “taken a formal English sentence and danced it around a bit”. Those words ring just as true in relation to Holmes’ vision for the production. He dances around the text, adding directorial flourishes here and bars of song there. But the vision never becomes fully clear.

Characters are in modern dress, reflecting the fact that there are still tenements in Dublin and still people living squashed together and poor.

There are a few other contemporary touches too: Jon Bausor’s set is a huge metal scaffold with only a few props, creating half-made tenement rooms where the characters live on top of each other.

Extracts from Padraig Pearse’s Republican-rousing speeches are watched by pub dwellers live on a TV, rather than hearing them through the pub walls. It’s treating O’Casey like Shakespeare, mapping a contemporary vision for a production onto a revered text.

Lines are treated in almost a Shakespearean way too. Arch, grand performances populate the play, and Holmes has his actors face the audience front-on as they speak, almost as if these lines are long asides to the people in the stalls.

The standout is definitely Hilda Fay’s Bessie Burgess, bringing the most depth as the tormented mother of a boy in the trenches. Fay carries the complexities of Bessie – surely one of the great characters in the Irish canon – such as the clash between being principled and not. She professes her Protestantism, but loots the shops during the rising. She’s verbally cruel to her neighbours, but looks after her neighbour’s sick daughter Mollsy.

The great strength of Holmes’ production is the way it’s riven down the middle between the overwrought comic patter of these working class Dubliners, rammed into their tenements but focused only on their solipsisms and private passions, and the unremitting tragedy and horror of the second half that forces these disparate people into a fragile community.

In one scene Holmes has four characters lined up in front of a bar, each not listening to the others; later on, as Ireland and Bausor’s set are knocked sideways, they band together across religious and ideological lines. Those, of course, are the same tensions writ large in the country O’Casey is reporting on. Should the men fight for their nation? Or keep their family, and themselves, safe?

This is a solid production – and a reminder that The Plough and the Stars is a great play, and so hard to do well.

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Sean Holmes’ solid production of Sean O'Casey's masterpiece lacks a clear vision