The Plough and the Stars is the third Sean O’Casey production the National have put on in recent years: first Juno and the Paycock, then followed later by The Silver Tassie. Set in 1916 at the time of the Irish rebellion, the play is in some ways a companion piece to The Silver Tassie, but while that play explored the carnage of the First World War, The Plough and the Stars takes a more domestic view, looking at how the fighting in Dublin affects a small tenement community.
At the heart of the drama are Nora and Jack, newly married and very much in love, but while Nora wants her husband to stay with her, he is keen to join the fighting. Things come to a head in the second act when she goes searching for him in war-torn Dublin. Meanwhile, a motley cast of characters including Nora’s cousin, her charlady, grumpy upstairs neighbour Bessie and assorted friends and relatives.
The play is mainly about the people rather than the rebellion: a case in point is the first act’s pub scene. Outside the pub, a rebel is delivering a rousing address to the waiting crowds, but our focus is on the interior of the pub and the characters drinking, fighting and talking there. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of strong female characters in the play: Nora (Judith Roddy), whose determination to retrieve her husband is both foolhardy and admirable; Bessie (Justine Mitchell), whose bad-tempered demeanour belies great courage; and Josie Walker’s charlady, whose gloomy funereal pronouncements lend some comic relief to the play, while also adding pathos.
The Plough and the Stars isn’t a cheerful play, but it’s a memorable and poignant slice of Dublin tenement life, with a wonderfully ironic ending and splashes of humour. In this centenary year of the Easter Rising, it’s well worth seeing.