Humanity shines through dark days

Bessie Burgess (Gabrielle Reidy), left,  Nora (Kelly Campbell) and Fluther Good (Joe Hanley) in The Plough and the Stars Pictures: Ros Kavanagh

The Plough and the Stars

Birmingham Rep

The Old Rep, Birmingham

*****

TENEMENT life is all about the people who live within the buildings and this Sean O'Casey play highlights the impact of the Easter Rising in 1916 on a group of working class men and women living in Dublin.

The community of the building is a richly diverse and characterful one. The garrulous Mrs. Gogon (Deirdre Molloy) bustles about with much to say about the ‘billing and cooing' of a young couple Nora and Jack Clitheroe (Kelly Campbell and Barry Ward).

Then there is Peter Flynn (Frankie McCafferty) in his flamboyant uniform, the Communist young Covey (Laurence Kinlan) who constantly seems to torment him, and the whiskey loving Fluther Good (Joe hanley) are an excellent trio who provide a range of male perspectives on life.

Nora aspires to a better life and a family; her dreams are shattered when Jack is promoted to the rank of commandant of the Irish Citizen Army and he leaves to take part in the rebellion.

We meet Bessie Burgess (Gabrielle Reidy) whose respect for the Union flag and sniping reminders of tragic events in the trenches seems to set her apart from the others, while prostitute Rosie Redmond (Kate Brennan) who inhabits the bar and the consumptive Mollsey (Roxanna Nic Liam) ably remind us of the impacts of poverty and poor housing. These tenement dwellers are scraping a living together in a bleak environment. 

Jack and Nora (Barry Ward and Kelly Campbell) sharing a tender moment

The crumbling building, the bar and the costumes are stark, dark and grey but the language of this play provides the colour. The contrast between the lives and everyday heroism of the tenement dwellers and the nationalists and their leaders is remarkably symbolised. 

Flags are raised and lowered and the Figure in the Window (Karl Quinn) actually marches across the bar to deliver rhetoric. Although we do not see much of the violence, the play acknowledges the differing ideologies through overlapping plots. The fate of Jack and others who actually take part in the Uprising is juxtaposed with the argumentative, flirtatious and chattering tenement denizens who merely pause to listen to the speeches.

The original performance of the play in 1926 did not sit easily with audiences in Dublin who rioted to demonstrate their disapproval. It may not sit easily with you; the variety of characters may reinforce the fact that the British had greater numbers, artillery and proper training. Fluther's banter brings humour to the darkest of situations yet the course of events shows his compassionate side. Nora's tragic descent into madness after losing a baby as well as her love is at the heart of the play but, above all, superb acting and O'Casey's script highlight the support and care that were/are part and parcel of tenement life.

Despite the shelling and the rioting in the background, the situation brings out the best in Bessie as the community pull together to cope with the aftermath of the revolt and the presence of British tommies in their lives.

This Abbey Theatre production was directed by Wayne Jordan with set design by Tom Piper and is marked by some wonderful acting. Tragic, heartbreaking and humorous - it will make you think! 

Laura Ginesi  

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