The Plough And The Stars

Published July 28, 2016

What’s it all about?

Set in Dublin from 1915-1916, O’Casey’s play charters the lives of a handful of working class inhabitants of a run-down tenement building. As tension grows in anticipation of the Easter Rising, we watch them deal with love, loss and loyalty to their country.

Who’s in it?

Judith Roddy gives a stunning turn as Nora Clitheroe; strong and capable, and desperately in love with her husband, Jack, who is conflicted between his love for her, and his duty to the revolution. Roddy’s performance fizzles with energy and emotion, her declaration that “I will sacrifice more for love than any of them will sacrifice for hate” is one of the most stirring moments of the play. Her cries of agony and confusion at the loss of her child chill to the bone. 

Justine Mitchell also does stellar work as Bessie Burgess; at first appearing as a cranky drunk, looting shops and spitting out insults at anyone who gets in her way. As such, she offers some of the best comedy of the play, but the moment she begins to speak of her son fighting in the trenches, she stills the audience into a taught silence. Little by little, with each passing act of kindness, she reveals herself to be the true heroine of the piece, and the noblest figure on the stage.

What should I look out for?

Vicky Mortimer’s brilliant set design, offering a vividly realistic slice of life in a Dublin tenement, down to the soot-stained chimney breast, grime-encrusted windows and mismatching furniture. The different sets and spaces on show as the stage makes its slow revolve (an alleyway, a pub, the front of the house) offer a further sense of place, reminding the audience of the world outside the flat, and the extent of the impact of revolution.

The moments of physical comedy from Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Stephen Kennedy, executed both with agility and with hilarious comic timing. Kennedy’s drunken attempt to sit on a stool in Act Two is one of the funniest moments of the play.

Stephen Warbeck’s haunting music, and in particular the use of unaccompanied singing. The inclusion of folk songs, love songs and war anthems at key moments in the play both cuts through tension and builds it excruciatingly.

In a nutshell?

Olivier Award-winning directors offer a striking and harrowing revival of Sean O’Casey’s classic play about the Easter Rising.

What are people saying on Twitter?

Will I like it?

Though the intricacies of the Easter Rising (with the various armies launched by the people against Home Rule) may not be familiar to everyone, this in no way diminishes the impact of Jeremy Herrin and Howard Davies’ production. While politics is discussed onstage, the play really succeeds in the way it illuminates the lives of those on the margins of the revolution, of the small, domestic battles that consume individuals, while the bloodier ones take place on the streets outside. As the violence escalates, past feuds are put aside, and neighbours join forces in the name of survival.

The centenary of both the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme in 2016 adds a further complexity to this production. Just when the suffering onstage seems to have reached an unbearable climax, Bessie laments for her son in France and the rude, brash and violent British soldiers sing Keep The Home Fires Burning. Suddenly the audience is forced to compare both tragedies; who is to blame, and who most deserves our sympathy? This revelation is the final twist of the knife in a production that will leave you shocked, troubled and quite possibly breathless.

The Plough And The Stars runs at the Lyttleton Theatre, National Theatre, until 22 October. You can buy tickets through us here.