O'CASEY'S PLOUGH AND THE STARS AT KILCULLEN THEATRE
"Wirra Wirra and Musha Now, it's a new drama production, and we'll all be kilt shurely sorr before the noight is out, begorrah and bejabers," throught I when I heard of plans to bring Sean O'Casey's perennially wearisome greatest hit The Plough And The Stars to our dulcet hometown.
The Plough And The Stars is a sort of melodramatic comawlya set during the 1916 Rising and written in a stodgey stagey oirishness that like this review would be easier to understand if it had been writtten in ancient Egyptian.
I mean I don't want to go casting no apsoyshuns.
An attempt to purchase the rights last year had floundered to my delight when the owners of the play refused to release it to our amateur drama group for the whole of 2016 in case it might detract from some appalling professional production elsewhere.
Unfortunately Director Mischa Fekete and his cohorts are made of stern stuff. They championed the project into this year and made it happen in spite of nay sayers like me, or to be more precise, in spite of for crying out loud have mercy please please please don't sayers like me.
The play is in a way a spectacle piece and presents many challenges for the modern producer, not the least of which is the difficulty of creating visual awe during the revolution scenes for an audience that is accustomed to million dollar cinematic special effects.
How does one move an audience that has been overdosed on sensation by atheism, drugs, porno and the internet?
Mr Fekete as director tackled the task of bringing O'Casey's version of the Easter Rising alive for a modern audience with the twin strategies of recruiting an all star cast and then pitching them at us from the middle of an extraordinarily complex and distinctively designed set.
Attention to detail is one of his hallmarks.
Nothing was left to chance.
Even minor characters like the splendidly apparelled looters played by Annie Shiffer and Caitriona Poufong, both clearly revelling in the mischievous opportunism of their roles, were woven seamlessly and precisely like jewels into the overall narrative.
The effect of the set was to give many of the scenes an unusual poetic resonance just in visual terms alone.
I admit it grudgingly.
The set as much as the acting was a wizardly work of art.
At times it was like looking at beautiful sepia tinted photographs, with the interior scenes capturing the ghostly feel of a tavern from a hundred years ago and the exteriors managing to suggest the compressed tension of a tenement street in Dublin with the broad shabby cluttered mystic sweep of the city behind it.
Mr Fekete knows his actors and appears to have gone to great lengths to create a an almost mellifluous integration in their playing.
To my mind he had put as much work into the casting as he had into the set and the rehearsal schedule. In any play, initial casting is half the battle.
Esther Reddy gave a dynamic evocation of all the moods of the character Mrs Gogan, the gregarious tenament dweller who takes us from knockabout farce to brawling oaf to tragedy over the course of the drama.
Newcomer Wayne Donohue had a formidable job to do, as his character is juxtaposed continuously between characters played by veterans Maurice O'Mahony and Bernard Berney.
Let me put it this way.
Asking Wayne Donohue to play between those two would be like asking me to star in a film with Clint Eastwood and Michael Caine. Incidentally I think I would give Clint and Michael a run for their money and a few surprises besides.
Those who have seen Wayne Donohue's promising earlier performances with Eilis Philips' Junior Drama Group will not be so surprised that he managed to more than hold his own in his bouts of badinage with Mr O'Mahony and Mr Berney.
Not only that, I think he may have shown all of us a theatrical thing or two as his youthful precocious talent is morphing into skill before our eyes. He will go from strength to strength on the evidence of this outing.
Philip Cummins and Letitia Hanratty overcame much of my hostility towards the playwright's script by generating moments of powerful romanticism in their depictions.
I was concerned that Mr Cummins performance when the couple argue might become much too aggressive. He can play aggressivity as well as he plays congeniality. On the night I saw them play it, I was simply stunned by their artistry.
There are risks for the actors in some of the scripting. For instance at the height of the rebellion Mr Cummins and Ms Hanratty are reunited amid the rubble of a blazing city and their characters have a fraught, sometimes passionate, sometimes violent encounter, while a soldier appears to be bleeding to death behind them.
This in the wrong hands could become high farce. They made it work, under the rigorous eyes of their director no doubt, but work it did.
Mr Cummins early in the play sings to Ms Hanratty's character the song Nora, and provides in that moment of sensual togetherness the underlying dynamic which made the rest of the play compelling.
If an audience cares intensely about two central characters and believes in them, they will care about everything and follow you anywhere.
With regard to playwright O'Casey's penchant for pathos, you again won't know whether to laugh or cry when Brid Hernon Hoey's character is gut shot through a window, and takes about five minutes to expire. We are in dangerous dramatic territory in this scene. The character spends her last five minutes on earth complaining by the way. A modern cynical audience containing a few critics like myself, could burst out laughing as easily as they might feel the grief of it.
Brid Hernon Hoey though had somehow made us her own. Another piece of Fekete genius, this casting. Brid Hernon Hoey knows her Dubs. She knows how they talk, how they move, even how they breathe.
Before her untimely and lengthy demise she had a rather engaging fight scene in the pub with Esther Reddy, good girly action fighting whoarr, and the thing was a little masterpiece.
My only reservation aside from her double barelled second name which complicates my review and my life unnecessarily, was that Ms Hernon Hoey held an apparent bite on Ms Reddy's arm for rather a long time during the fight. I thought she'd have the arm off in another moment.
Later in the play Ms Hernon Hoey produced more superbly dramatic moments, her character evincing the most improbable and dangerous pro British sympathies with near devilish glee, repeatedly chanting "Choke the chicken," as the rebels are being wiped out in the ruins of a blazing city. I couldn't help feeling that some warm hearted humanitarian Rahman would have shot her in the first five minutes of the Rising. But realism is not Sean O'Casey's strong point. I wonder had he ever even met a Rah man.
Dick Dunphy as the bar tender was a gem. I watched him even when he had nothing to say. Ye olde compelling stage presence. He's never lost it.
John Martin as the street orator who may or may not be Padraic Pearse, inserted a fevered passion of the real into an evocation that was utterly striking.
"It is good for the world that such things should be done," proclaims Mr Martin's character speaking of World War One. "The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields."
This was one of the moments when I completely forgot my historical negative prejudice against the play as a whole.
I was swept away by the passion, the power of the invocation and the poignancy of what was being suggested.
And it all happened because of the inspired manner in which Mr Fekete had devised the presentation of the scenes with his street orator.
For we never actually see a plain view of the actor John Martin playing him.
We see only his shadow through a misted plate glass window.
Throughout the play, he remains plainly ever present and yet a mystery.
The shadow gestures and gesticulates while calling the city and the country to revolution.
The scenes with the orator are much discussed in any production of The Plough And The Stars. No one knows what to do with them. Every amateur and professional group stages them differently. The Abbey Theatre in Dublin in a recent version, had the orator's voice coming from a giant radio and we never saw anything of their actor playing him at all.
Mischa Fekete found a way to present the orator, and John Martin to play him, which provided a mesmeric poetic evocation of... I don't know... something... the phantoms of war I suppose... fame, fortune, glory, pipe dreams and destruction... it was all there in that shadow.
Sublime visual poetry.
The scene also contained an odd little resonance, an echo, an imagistic rhyme, with one of O'Casey's other plays which is actually called The Shadow Of They Gunman.
Was this deliberate or a happy accident?
I could have watched the shadow orate forever. In fact at the end of the show I muttered, not entirely in jest, to a friend: "I think they should have found a way to give that shadow a few more scenes."
The charismatic Roy Thompson and the newcomer Peter Roynane as two British soldiers, achieved an authentic, troubling, yet respectful and paradoxically sympathetic representation of their characters.
There was another of director Fekete's trademark visual poetry moments at the end of the play courtesy of these two, when Mr Thompson and Mr Roynane sat quietly in a room of the tenament building lately visited by death at their hands. I thought: Oh hold that moment forever, it's perfect. But Mr Thompson began to stir and shortly thereafter removed his army cap. I was frustrated by this action as I thought, ah they didn't want to waste the guy who's normally the leading man, so they have to show us Roy's face and now we lose the poetry.
But no. Director Fekete had more up his sleeve. Mr Thompson's character in a perfectly fluid and effortlessly achieved move, placed his cap over the muzzle of his gun and the two men began to sing a gentle sad song at twilight.
Tears would have flowed from a stone. Tears did flow. It was a magnificent moment.
Kevin O'Kelly played an efficient Citizen's Army Captain with ease and assurance.
Another find of the evening, possibly of the season, was twenty something youngster Susan Byrne who like Brid Hernon Hoey knows everything there is to know about the way true Dubliners speak, feel and act.
Her scenes with Bernard Berney charmed the audience and lifted the action from representationalism into reality.
There were some who said she was too pretty to play a prostitute but I did not agree. The whole notion of a girl who grows up in squalor and is somehow a rose among the thorns, is poignant and true, and this actress made it believable. When I saw her character, I thought of the Italian singer Fabrizio Di Andre's line: "Nothing grows in diamonds, but flowers grow in the mud." Then again I thought of the concept in British literature of the Venus De Mile End, an evocation of a beautiful girl who lives this sordid lifestyle and is still somehow plaintively exquisite.
That was Susan Byrne's playing in The Plough And The Stars. Plaintively exquisite.
Aisling Finnegan and Rebecca Walsh took turns playing the part of a child dying from consumption. Their playing was sensitive, natural, and assured.
I couldn't help thinking that the consumptive death visited on the children's character was that which the modern day scoundrels of Independent Newspapers, the Irish Times, RTE, and their allies in the atheistic, political and legal pseudo elites of what passes for high society in modern Ireland, are endeavouring to recycle and reinterpret a hundred years later in our own era as an indictment of the Catholic Church. I ask you.
Iarlaith Behan gave a good solid convincing performance as an Irish Volunteer in the heat of battle dealing with the looming spectre of the death of a comrade. He kept the drama real at what might otherwise have been a mawkishly sentimental moment. (O'Casey has at least five of them in the play and the actors have to negotiate them like trip wires.)
Another gem like performance came late in the action from Philomena Breslin as the eponymous Woman From Rathmines who expects the rebels to abandon their fighting to help her get home.
I'm almost afraid to mention Maurice O'Mahony. This is after all a drama group that shoots back. I regret to inform you gentle readers that I liked him.
Maurice O'Mahony's layered playing gave us a quirky spirited depiction of the picaresque Uncle Peter. The actor had come out of his comfort zone and presented an interpretation unlike anything he's ever done before. Hence my unabashed enthusiasm. Mr O'Mahony gave his performance a wry richness combining the curious nostalgic romanticism of an Irish Don Quixote with the neurotic waspishness of an atypical crusty old Dublin curmudgeon. I think Sean O'Casey himself if he had seen Mr O'Mahony's playing might have been moved to remark: "There! That's it! That guy understands what I was trying to do!"
Bernard Berney was a merry compatriot in much Mr O'Mahony's capers and managed to do plenty of capering of his own in the role of Fluther.
The capering was neatly offset with his thoughtful, indeed artful, evocation of a character who is at once gregarious, silly, sly, vain and heroic.
Mr Berney as Fluther carried us into the world of 1916 and made it live for us.
He was not the best actor on stage. But I had the distinct impression that without him there would not have been anyone else there to see the show.
Genius lies in gaining the consent of an audience to imagine.
Or in casting someone who can gain that consent.
Which brings me back to director Mischa Fekete.
In a most rare and strange way, I sensed his presence as director everywhere in this play. For me he brooded like a spectre above the set pieces, the vignettes and the action. In the poetic visuals. In the pathos. in the tragedy. In the comedy. In the selection of the actors and technical crew. In the way in which the actors had been let find their own equilibrium. In the wonderfully choreographed set changes. In the sets themselves.
The Plough And The Stars was Mischa Fekete's baby.
The brick bats and the kudos... are his.
Now my own confession.
Writing theatre reviews for the Bridge can be pressured business. Word has gotten out that I am an interesting fellow and truth be told, it does not come easy to me. I have to strive to be interesting. Normally I'm more like Sean Landers the magazine's travelogue correspondent who files copy from Taiwan. The real me is like Landers on one of his off days. Think brackish. Think ditch water. Think interminable. Think a tepid cup of tea. And then there's the constant expectation from my public to keep them guessing. Why, only last week former Drama Group Chairman John Coleman expressed himself thusly about my work: "Ah Heelers, you've chickened out. You're afraid to say anything about anyone anymore."
His remark seemed to refer to a brief storm in a tea cup two years ago when another of my reviews had provoked another of the Drama Group's now former Chairmen Eilis Phillips into a rhetorical letter writing canniptian over my critical parsing of actor Maurice O'Mahony's ineluctable modalities or some such thing.
John Coleman is of course as wrong about all this as he is about everything else. I wish he'd act in something again so I could show him how wrong. Left ham of the devil indeed.
Keep well gentle readers.
Someday we shall laugh again.