Friday, September 16, 2016

Limited run - The Plough and the Stars

It has been a long, long day.  Actually, it has been a long week, since I worked pretty much through the night Monday night, and then I've been dealing with a number of academic things for the past 24 hours or so.  I had to complete several TRB reviews and upload my final TAC presentation all on the 15th.  I managed to cross the last obligation off my list at 11:58 pm.  I debated between taking the subway home and biking.  I ultimately biked home, but found that the cabbies were far more out of control than normal, and in fact one barely stopped for me at a stop sign, only about 4 blocks from home.  That would have been terribly ironic after I managed to get out of the downtown safely.

Because it is so late, I will just encourage interested parties to go see The Plough and the Stars this weekend at Canadian Stage.  It is actually being performed by Abbey Theatre Company for one week only.  There are still some tickets left for Friday and Sunday.

I had been kind of wavering, but I'm glad I went (even though I had to bring my laptop and work on a Powerpoint presentation during the intermission!).  It was a really strong production, and Abbey Theatre Company almost never comes to Toronto (this is first time in 26 years).  I probably caught 80-90% of the dialogue, since the accents were thick at times and I was sitting towards the back of the theatre, but the action was always clear.  While it was still clearly about the events of 1916, there were several changes that essentially made 2016 and 1916 blur together, particularly when during Act II, the barman kept putting on the telly, so that people could watch all the nationalist speeches being made.  I think of all the scenes, Act II was my favorite, since it had this Fluther character at his most Falstaffian (and I liked the barman character as well, though it was a bit role).  My third favorite character was this pint-sized Marxist provocateur, but many of the roles were stand-out roles.

Many people consider The Plough and the Stars to be O'Casey's masterpiece, and this was certainly an electrifying production.  It felt to me that he was drawing very heavily on the example of Shakespeare's Henry IV (particularly Fluther as a kind of Falstaff) but there were two critical changes.  First, there really were no kings and dukes involved; this was very much a play about the lower classes of Dublin.  (The play was set first in a tenement building and later right outside, and Act II took place in a nearby pub.)  Second, he really drives home the point that there is no honor and certainly no glory in war, which may be in the subtext of Shakespeare's history plays, but Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V do glorify war on the surface.  These reviews (here and here) give a fairly good idea of The Plough and the Stars.

It was quite strange overhearing some youngster seemingly saying that he just didn't see the point of putting on the play (or perhaps he was defending the modern production, though certainly my impression was that he thought this play was too ancient to resonate today).  All I can say is that there are still so many civil wars being fought on narrow nationalist grounds, and this play really does speak to the need to strip the glory away from these conflicts so that perhaps fewer people would continue to carry on these wars.  But even if it wasn't actually so relevant, I would still want companies to put on the classics.  His desire for the new (and shortsighted dismissal of the past) just reminded me of the same people that stuck up for the ill-conceived inversions of The Glass Menagerie because it felt more "modern" to them.  (Not that I always automatically side with the traditionalists: I did think John Gabriel Borkman at Stratford was a play that didn't make much sense for today's audience.)  I'm too tired to get much deeper into these debates or to say much more about the production, aside from repeating that it was a very strong production and I'm glad I was able to see it.  I think it says something about how immersive it was that I didn't find myself nodding off even for a moment (often a problem for me during concerts), despite being quite sleep deprived.

Now that I have gotten a bit of rest, I've had a bit more time to think about the production.  It definitely is a postmodern production in terms of the set and the costumes, but the core of the play is very much intact.  I generally think of it as the modern era sort of imposing itself on the 1916 uprising (sort of a palimpsest across the generations).  But it wasn't as if Nora now thinks that the rebellion is a good idea -- that would be an unforgivable revision of the play.  Basically, that is how I would distinguish this production (respectful to the core ideas of the play but updated in some ways) versus The Glass Menagerie, where the updating of the play really undermines what Williams was going for; though I suppose it is a fine line and on the surface they both look like the director going a bit too far.  I may also be just a bit more forgiving, since Abbey Theatre puts on The Plough and the Stars every few years, and the 2012 production was apparently quite traditional.

While the local reviewers have been quite positive, it is possible to find reviewers (and certainly the general public!) who wish that it had been done as a period piece and that any attempt to link the Easter Rebellion of 1916 to more modern uprisings is a major mistake.  This reviewer had mixed feelings, but ultimately gave it a fairly positive review.  Interestingly, he really didn't like one of the more comic moments, when the pint-sized Marxist is looting a full-size drier and is carrying it on his back.  I thought this was great.  I am now curious what the text says at this point, so I have put in a request to get it from the library.  Here's the Guardian review and one from the Irish Times (where the director says he never saw the play before!).  I am also particularly interested in seeing if O'Casey actually has all the speeches in the text (probably so).  In most productions you hear them through the pub window, but here they are all on the pub television.

I can understand why people felt O'Casey was making fun of the nationalists, but I think it is more about the fact that their leaders were quite appalling, saying things like blood had to be sacrificed and that the Irish should welcome martyrdom.  Any leader who deliberately sets out to spill blood is a meglomaniac who should be shunned.  I am not really up on my Irish revolutionary leaders, but it does appear that Parnell never glorified war the way the leaders of the 1916 Rebellion apparently did. 

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