On Monday, Irish broadcaster RTE's Reflecting the Rising event restaged signature events from the Irish revolution on the streets of Dublin. One of those moments showed how all the shooting gave working class Dubliners, who lived in some of the worst slums in Europe, the opportunity to loot fancy stores.
The sight of desperately poor women suddenly bedecked in fancy linen and lace, with hats adorned with ostrich feathers and ribbons, was unforgettable to those who witnessed it. So was the raucous laughter that accompanied many of these incursions.
Getting their hands on the finery that was denied them all their lives, it must have been the moment they gave their hearts over to the revolution. In The Plough and the Stars, now playing at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin before touring the U.S. this summer, playwright Sean O'Casey re-stages this telling moment, which has a lot of poignancy lurking under its hilarious surface. It took him 10 years to get to grips with, write and present the play, and the country had only recently emerged from the Civil War. Wounds were still raw - and they remain so in this startling new production.
At a moment when Ireland has a caretaker taoiseach and the voters have guillotined every major political party's mandate to rule, there's more than a whiff of insurrection in the air in 2016 Ireland that reproduces the anger in this remarkable play.
When the Rising happens almost no one in O'Casey's working class Dublin slum supports it. The gorgeous young Nora Clithero (Kate Stanley Brennan) only wants a quiet life, a nice dress to wear, and the love of her husband Jack (Ian Lloyd Anderson). More than anything, she wants some kind of life for herself in the city's cramped slums.
Her neighbors include the older and transparently jealous Bessie Burgess (an incandescently angry Eileen Walsh) who only has contempt for Nora's ambition. Burgess' son has signed up to fight in the Great War with the British Army and, an ardent unionist, she supports his decision and curses the homegrown revolutionaries.
Another neighbor is Mrs. Gogan (Janet Moran), the tartly tongued widow whose child Mollser is racked with tuberculosis. Husbandless in a time when it was dangerous for a woman to be so, Mrs. Gogan is a woman adrift (actress Nyree Yergainharsian as the prostitute Rosie Redmond shows us one potential fate awaiting her). Moran and Walsh are both pitch perfect in their scorn and anger, which can turn into laughter just as quickly.
The Abbey's new production succeeds because director Sean Holmes has taken a radical approach that compliments the material. Holmes has given the play a 2016 setting and a multiracial cast that reflects the reality of life in modern Dublin, and he has shown us how working class alienation is as rich a theatrical seam now as it was then.
It's the greatest production of The Plough and the Stars that I've ever seen, in other words. It's the kind of ideal staging that a playwright dreams of. In performance it feels raw and wounded, like it was just written.
O'Casey shows us that political change is meaningless if it's not accompanied by economic change. Workers must be lifted up too, not left out. He makes this point repeatedly by mocking the pomposity of soldiers in uniform, and by the casual cruelty they often unleash.
But the most heart-stopping moment in the play comes when Nora is physically roughed up by her Jack for failing to tell him that he had been promoted to Commandant in the Irish Citizens Army. Nora kept the news to herself because she realizes it could spell his death.
“You're hurting me!” she shouts when he twists her arm in anger.
“You deserve to be hurt!” he replies and tosses her on their bed. The sight is unforgettable because Irish women were told this, in a hundred different ways, throughout the 20th century.
When they assert their own rights, they're still being told it. Jack must pick between his love for his wife and his love for Ireland, and Nora loses every time.
Dealing with a subject as complex and intimate as the Rising sees O'Casey give way to melodrama. But Holmes' brilliant staging manages to diffuse his excesses by turning them into straight to the audience commentary. He even has some characters sing cabaret karaoke numbers that feel authentic to the Dublin working class.
In the play O'Casey records the scale of the disaster that befell Dublin's working class, but what makes the play great is that it foresees what lies ahead too. He still does. So does this amazing, must-see production.