Saturday 18 November 2017

Theatre: This 'Plough' ploughs the depths

The desperation of Dublin slums in 1916 was never like this

Dominic McHale as Michael Collins in 'A Great Arrangement' by Pat Talbot, Gardens Theatre, Lower Friar's Walk, Ballyphehane, Cork. Photo: Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Dominic McHale as Michael Collins in 'A Great Arrangement' by Pat Talbot, Gardens Theatre, Lower Friar's Walk, Ballyphehane, Cork. Photo: Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Emer O'Kelly

Re-imagining classic plays is one thing; it can be valuable, even revelatory at times. But when the re-imagining involves draping a sanitised cloak over the darkness of the blood, sweat and tears at the heart, it comes close to an insult to the author and his intentions.

The Plough and the Stars is site-specific: an 18th-Century tenement building close to O'Connell Street. It's date-specific: an evening in November 1915, with the later acts set across three days in Easter Week. So what the bloody hell does it "re-imagine" or add either to its comedy or its searing tragedy to dress the women characters in platforms and skinny jeans and have Jack Clitheroe do a hotcha dance (with microphone) around his tenement room in his extremely clean 21st-century knickers?

The result, in Sean Holmes's new production for the Abbey does not so much re-invent the play for a new generation, as deny a new generation any opportunity of identifying with the reality of Dublin in 1916. Few people in the Clitheroe tenement would have taken a bath from birth to death: the very poor looked grey all over and stank to high heaven unless they were employed by enlightened families like the Guinnesses who provided wash houses for their employees. Hard, unending labour and terror concerning the provision of rent and food (social welfare was non-existent in the western world) ensured that a 40-year-old woman looked like a withered harridan, and her husband probably looked like and behaved like a drunken brute, driven to frequent violence through frustration and despair.

If the current production of O'Casey's great howl against militarism and deprivation is a theatre-goer's first experience of the play, they would need to have read a social history of early 20th-century Dublin life beforehand: there's no flavour of its indignity and misery here.

Perish the thought, obviously, that new audiences should be put under the strain of having their imaginations stretched or their knowledge increased.

The production does have its moments, however, largely in relation to performances from Eileen Walsh as Bessie Burgess (raddled and heart-rending, despite skinny jeans and a puffa jacket), David Ganly as Fluther, Ciaran O'Brien as the Young Covey, Ian Lloyd-Anderson as Jack, and Kate Stanley Brennan as Nora (who has to play her final mind-wandering scene crawling around inside a scaffolding tower turned on its side: whose bright production idea was that?).

PATRICK Talbot has drawn on numerous sources for his play A Great Arrangement, which traces the run-up to the 1921 Treaty and its tragic aftermath, centring it on the relationship between Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan.

He directs the piece himself (at the Gardens Theatre in Ballyphehane in Cork) and moves it along at great speed, creating a panoramic view of two pivotal years in Irish history. Against a backdrop of the letters between Kiernan and Collins, the audience is taken vividly through the tortuous negotiations in London, with a weary Collins certain that at last he has achieved the core values of real independence for Ireland, only to be shot down verbally by de Valera in the newly established Dail, and in more deadly reality by his own countrymen on a lonely road outside Cork.

But Talbot also gives us the human side: the often forgotten story that Kitty Kiernan was involved with Harry Boland when she met Collins, and ditched him for his friend.

It makes Boland's measured condemnation of Collins's achievement, and his siding with de Valera in the subsequent deadly split, even more poignant.

Talbot parades history before us with extraordinary credibility and great humanity.

Although I must admit that the only biographies of Collins that I have read are those by Tim Pat Coogan and Frank O'Connor, and Talbot's Collins is a far more attractive and humane personality than emerges from either of those.

The play's weakness is the unnecessary finale of a "post-mortem sermon" by Collins about what Ireland can achieve: clearly meant as an admonishment to our own generation.

The other weakness is Irene Kelleher's portrayal of Kitty Kiernan as a skittish teenager: in 1921, Kiernan was 29 years old and a tough country businesswoman.

But Dominic McHale's Collins is a fine, even touching, performance, with Michael Grennell showing impressive ability in accents in playing parts as varied as de Valera and Bernard Shaw, and Mark D'Aughton as Harry Boland and Lloyd George. Paula McGlinchey completes the cast in roles as varied as Mary MacSwiney and Constance Markievicz.

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