Sunday 17 December 2017

Stage: London Irish take 'Plough' back to O'Casey's original

Homesick: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is playing The Covey in The Plough and the Stars
Homesick: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is playing The Covey in The Plough and the Stars

Maggie Armstrong

In the National Theatre on London's South Bank, a vast new production of The Plough and the Stars is being mounted. A ­tenement building is soaring up from the Lyttlelton stage, a stage which revolves and tracks back, and then a pub flies on to it - a pub literally flies on to the stage, they tell us!

The two English directors are Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin, who have cast an all-Irish company of actors as the slum-dwellers in Seán O'Casey's four-act tragedy of the Easter Rising - a giant cast numbering such Irish Londoners as Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Judith Roddy.

Period costume pieces have been copied and tailored bespoke. Fight direction is in swing for the Citizen Army, and guts may spew from stomachs on stage. Pregnant Nora Clitheroe's breasts are being created from chicken fillets - silicone bra accoutrements about which that's enough said.

Judith Roddy, as Nora, has a team of people "poking at my boobs all day". She also carries the greatest burden of the play's tragedy of infanticide and smashed hope. She is exhausted: "It's sore on my voice. We've been recording screams, for double show days." But, gasps the Derry-born actress (who shone in the National's production of The Silver Tassie, by O'Casey, in 2014), "Oh my God, this is HBO theatre. It is a mammoth thing."

The pyrotechnics may stun, but the mood, underneath the fearsome production values and technical chutzpah, is human and reflective. The people I talked to about this Plough felt by turns nostalgic, proud, excited, in awe (of O'Casey's "genius"), dismayed and hurt, thrown by the play into Brexit-era self-examination.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, who will always be Nidge of Love/Hate, is playing The Covey - a Marxist who believes, like the young O'Casey did, that the Rising should be a working-class revolution. "It makes you ask questions of what your own moral compass is, what you believe in."

And Tom is homesick. Actually he is "incredibly homesick", he is "dewy-eyed". Married to an Englishwoman and 16 years in London, the play has got him thinking of O'Connell Street. He feels, he says, "homeland, the call of home, the Irish nostalgia!" He has never been so "proud" in London as now.

Another feeling bracing people is risk. Plough sheds a harsh light on the Rising by showing the working-class lives it destroyed. When it first opened in 1926, the Abbey's well-to-do audiences protested. Similarly, people across the pond might find it "uncomfortable", to watch the Irish struggle for freedom play out. "It's certainly interesting," says director Jeremy Herrin "to work with an Irish company in Britain's national theatre. Because obviously it's a complicated history. Post-colonial issues all over the place. I think there's a real difficulty for British audiences to look at the legacy of the colonial history in Ireland."

A play that in Ireland has about as much thrill to it as an overplayed Hozier song - the Abbey alone has staged Plough 57 times in the 90 years since it first opened - Plough is going to be reasonably exotic in London. The National has staged it but once, in 1977. This is why the directors chose to set the play in period.

"Our relationship with the play isn't evolved enough, in London, to take it out of its period," says Jeremy. "It feels like we can do the play as faithfully and cleanly as we can, and allow the conversation to tumble out afterwards."

In changing times, that conversation is going to be difficult, says Jeremy. For him, the play about fighting for a nation's independence has sparked questions of nationhood and borders in his own country. "It's really interesting, post-Brexit, to talk about nationalism, and to talk about how we define ourselves. Particularly through the medium of theatre.

"Instead of making more connections with people, the Brexit vote was about cutting off connections. And theatre is always about open channels of communication."

Jeremy has seen a lifetime's worth of the fighting Irish this summer - he also directs Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness, coming to the Abbey on August 6. Does he feel more English than he has ever felt, amid this colony of Irish actors by the Thames?

"No," he says, "because I agree with what The Covey says." He quotes The Covey: "There's no such thing as an Irishman; or an Englishman, or a German or a Turk; we're all only human bein's. Scientifically speakin', it's all a question of the accidental gatherin' together of mollycewels an' atoms". "I'm with him on that," says Jeremy. "It doesn't feel like it's art's job to divide us up. It's art's job to bring us together."

But some human bein's become blood sacrifices. And some don't choose to die. This play is about, says Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, "the way the poor, in conflict, are always the most affected and the most displaced." After that, one notes, come crime kingpins like Nidge.

The Plough and the Stars opens at the Lyttlelton Theatre in London on July 27

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