Monday 20 November 2017

Stage: A war of the buttons rages backstage for O'Casey's Rising

Actor Ian Lloyd-Anderson. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Actor Ian Lloyd-Anderson. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Maggie Armstrong

We need to talk about Seán O'Casey's fashions. O'Casey wrote plays, sure; a wordsmith and visionary whose appeal across the generations, across class and gender (give or take,) is unrivalled. A champion of the working class who condemned the Easter Rising, whose plays remind us chillingly of innocent loss of life. But he was also a "swank" costume designer, to borrow his word.

As The Abbey's signature show for 2016 opens and The Plough and the Stars finds a bold, spectacular new production directed by Englishman Sean Holmes of the Lyric Hammersmith, we might find it interesting to open a copy of the play, which was first performed in 1926 and which many Irish people studied at school.

O'Casey wrote fashion notes worthy of a sneering Vogue editor. An Arnotts hat "with decorations in gold and red"; silver fox furs; glad-necked gowns; a "cheap, glittering jewelled ornament" for Rosie the prostitute; Uncle Peter's boots with spurs and ostrich-plumed hat; "seedy" suits and "jerry" hats all play supporting roles in the action.

To recap on English class: Plough is set in Dublin tenements where a melange of ill-fitting people live in disharmony until the GPO is stormed and bloodshed invades their privacy even more.

Amid the banter and fights between Fluther and Clitheroe, Bessie and Nora, Uncle Peter and The Covey, observe just how much O'Casey cared about clothes, how important he knew they were to the formation of person, their measurement of self-worth and their political, social and sexual values.

Clothes manifest these characters' aspirations, or loss of aspirations. In the famous looting scene, when shots ring out and the dramatis personae rush out to lift goods from the burning buildings, filling prams with boots and dresses, they risk their lives to keep up appearances.

Luckily, costume designer Catherine Fay has license to do as she pleases with the clothes in this show. Instead of landing us with a period drama, the costume department have created an "artificial reality" for Plough, "contemporary, but not defined to a particular era".

And it is beautiful to behold.

There are men in uniform, women in fast fashion, Pennys-style, 2016. Stonewashed jeans, leopard-print faux furs, platform heels, puffa jackets and one brilliantly employed football shirt. Bessie, Mrs Gogan and company look as if they were scouted on Abbey Street. Catherine, a costume designer sought after for her contemporary edge, wanted these tenement dwellers, who had "horrendous lives", to look like Dubliners today. "You have to care about these people," she says. "There's always that intention that when you watch it, you'll be able to feel for a character. If they're more familiar to you [the audience], it really helps you get into a production."

The Abbey's costume department, the best in the country, is a warren of hidden cupboards filled with outrageous dresses, and Pandora's boxes stuffed with hoarded accessories. Most of the clothes for Plough are from the high street, though the uniforms were tailor-made and drawn from the period. Rosie's dress was bought at Topshop, cut into and reshaped. Clothing as simple as Bessie's down-at-heel jeans and hoody took several previews and changes of mind to get right.

And then, of course, anything that's worn must be wrecked. Each piece of clothing tells a story, and like the tragedy that these garments form part of, it hasn't got a happy ending.

In a narrow workshop overlooking Del Rio's café and The Billiard Room, Sandra Gibney, The Abbey's breakdown artist, is hard at work before opening night. The costumes need to be broken down because "in Plough we have quite a lot of blood and massacre", says Sandra.

For instance, a tailor-made Citizen Army uniform. Three of each garment are bought to tell the story, almost in 'acts' of clothing (Plough is set between November 1915 and April 1916). The actors will start with a good uniform then change into a broken down one, then into a destroyed one. Sandra paints the fabric with blood and dust, adds bullet holes, pulls off buttons; and everything is lined up with the dresser side of stage.

They are the sort of details that would be conspicuous only in their absence. Wear and tear is meant to be, mind the pun, seamless. In the breakdown room, Sandra uses a cheese grater to wear down a garment; Fuller's earth dust, fabric and acrylic paints, to make the "good shades of mud and dirt" that she's been perfecting for 16 years in the job; potassium grains to age a new shirt. Those who get shot on stage have blood bags hidden in their costumes, but, backstage, Sandra is creating a red stain, topping it up with L'Oréal glossy nail polish which glistens like a fresh wound, apparently.

This agent of Seán O'Casey's tragedies loves what she does: "I discovered over the years I have a destructive side and it kinda works here."

Please see the play: it's a riot.

The Plough and the Stars plays March 9 to April 23 at The Abbey and tours to Cork, Wexford, Limerick, Galway and the United States.

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