The Abbey Theatre's 'Plough and the Stars' isn't your grandma's Irish classic (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

October 14, 2016

by Julia M. Klein


This isn’t your Irish grandmother’s Plough and the Stars.

With its stark fluorescent lighting, percussive musical underscoring, modern dress, presentational acting and prodigious use of stage blood, the Abbey Theatre’s revival recalls the Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s recent, controversial Broadway productions of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and The Crucible.

In Sean Holmes’ radical re-imagining of Sean O’Casey’s 1926 classic, characters grab microphones when they burst into song, an offstage voice emanates from a remote-controlled television, and a looter hauls a 21st century washing machine. Such touches may seem jarring to audiences already struggling with the play’s political complexities and Irish brogues. But there’s no denying this production’s musical and comic brio, or the quality of its ensemble.

Holmes’ ahistorical approach is ironic for an undertaking so steeped in history. This touring production celebrates the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916, Ireland’s failed but imaginatively stirring rebellion against British rule. The event serves as both setting and subject of the play, in which a group of Dublin tenement dwellers quarrel, gossip, drink and make love before becoming agents, witnesses or victims of the violence.

It was the Abbey Theatre that originally premiered The Plough and the Stars, whose title references the flag of the Irish Citizen Army. O’Casey’s obvious disillusionment with the bloody Easter Rising, already romanticized in popular memory, occasioned riots among playgoers.

At the drama’s tragic heart is the stormy marriage of Jack and Nora Clitheroe. Jack (a fiery Ian-Lloyd Anderson) embraces the nationalist cause. Nora (the heart-stirring Kate Stanley Brennan) wants him home and is willing to brave danger and scorn to exert her claim.

Around them circle an array of types: As the carpenter Fluther Good, a likable Everyman intent on swearing off drink, the great David Ganly owns the show’s comic moments. Bessie Burgess (Hilda Fay) spikily proclaims her loyalty to Britain, while sparring with Mrs. Gogan (Janet Moran), a gossipy charwoman improbably clad by costume designer Catherine Fay in jeans and high-heeled sandals. Ciarán O’Brien’s Young Covey, an ardent socialist, battles with Nora’s old-fashioned uncle, Peter Flynn (James Hayes).

O’Casey’s concerns – the dangers of mass movements, the impact of war on ordinary people, the need to put aside sectarian and religious differences – today seem unobjectionable. When a television demagogue intones the rhetoric of Irish rebel leader Patrick Pearse,“Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing,” the effect is chilling.

Jon Bausor’s set disdains realism in favor of scaffolding for the tenement building and a smattering of furniture for the Clitheroes’ apartment. Lighting designer Paul Keoganbathes the stage in fluorescents and violet lights, and Philip Stewart’s music and sound design energizes the show.

The juxtaposition of O’Casey’s poetic vernacular and historical specificity with contemporary props, costumes and music risks incoherence. But when Brennan’s Nora makes her desperate, aggrieved antiwar case, The Plough and the Stars casts its customary spell.

The Plough and the Stars. Through Oct. 16, presented by the Abbey Theatre at the Zellerbach Theatre, Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts,3680 Walnut St. Tickets:$25-$55. Information: 215-898-3900 or