The Plough and the Stars: Reviewed by
Brenda Liddy ©2012
Wayne Jordan: Director
I saw Sean O’Casey’s The
Plough and the Stars in The Grand Opera House Belfast on 22/09/12. It was
interesting to walk from a busy street in 21st century Belfast, and
be suddenly transported into a 1916 Dublin tenement slum. I thought that Nora
Clitheroe’s desire to rise above her station was poignantly portrayed. Her
pristine, white blouse and white apron hanging matched her white tablecloth
which spread ceremoniously on the table. Uncle Peter meanwhile provides a comic
backdrop, trying to attach his stiff white collar. His military posturing and
his amazing military costume suffers the same ignoble fate as Nora’s illusions
of grandeur or as Mrs Gogan implies, her’notions of upperosity’. They are both annihilated in the ‘call to
arms’ where patriotism trumps illusions of domestic bliss or military
pretentiousness. As the Figure in the Window preaches, ‘The fools, the fools,
they have left us our Fenian dead’ and the blood sacrifice has no place for
idealists and dreamers. The war needs soldiers to fight the mighty British
Empire, and Nora needs a husband. As in every war, these two competing aims cannot
accommodate each other, and Nora, played by Kelly Campbell embodies this dilemma
with style and in the end is reduced to an Ophelia-like waif, wandering round
in a daze. In my book, The Drama of War in the Theatre of Anne
Devlin, Marie Jones and Christina Reid, Three Irish Playwrights, I critique the way theatre in Ireland has tended to idealise or feminise the
ideal of the nation. It is perfectly fine to have the mythical Kathleen Ni Houlihan urging young Irish men to become
martyrs for the cause of Irish Freedom, but it is quite another to have Nora
bawling at the barricades, begging her man to forsake to the fight for freedom. Melissa Sihra
stresses, ‘the social and cultural position of woman has historically been one
of symbolic centrality and subjective disavowal as both colonial ideology and
nationalist movements promoted feminised concepts of the nation, while
subordinating women in everyday life.’
Jack, played by Barry Ward was
excellent at showing the emotional upheaval of leaving Nora, and heading to
almost certain death.
As the tragedy gathers momentum,
the comic jousts between Uncle Peter and Young Covey reach a crescendo, with
Nora acting as peace-maker. The effervescent Fluther’s comic shenanigans and
his malapropisms add to the sense of caricature. Everything good or bad is
described as derogatory and everything could be vice versa. These men are
reduced to comic ciphers. They are not brave enough to fight for freedom and
while they play lip service to Pearse’s rhetoric, they are not prepared to make
the blood sacrifice. But why should they? They were so reduced my material
deprivation, they use the opportunity of the mayhem to loot goods from the
shops. This is not the image the Dublin nationalists wanted portrayed and a
riot spearheaded by the Mrs. Sheehy-Skeffington, broke out in the 1926 production.
Young Covey who is fixated on a
socialist tract, ‘Jenersky’s Thesis on the Origin, Development, and ‘Consolidation of the
Evolutionary Idea of the Proletariat’ is continually at odds with the other men
who are caught up in the fervour of nationalism. His socialist ideas are
predicated on ‘saving his own skin’ and not getting shot. And in the bar scene
he condemns the unfortunate prostitute. As
Declan Kibert comments, he ‘uses socialism to denounce nationalism, and then
finds socialism inadequate anyway’. He argues that this
play is clichéd, and that no workman would identify with Fluther or no tenement
would identify with Mrs Gogan and that the work subscribes to a dead formula.
In the second act, the fate of
Jack is sealed and he is shot. Nora goes insane. Mollser, whose laboured
breathing is a metaphor for the claustrophobia of the tenements, also dies. In
the end the mean spirited Bessie Burgess, whose greatest satisfaction was
taunting the neighbours with her rendition of ‘Rule Britannia’ saves Nora’s
life and is killed by the British Army.
I would heartily commend this production of The Plough and the Stars.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
by Martin McDonagh
Review written by Brenda Liddy
10th October 2009
The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh, first performed in 1996, received a standing ovation from the audience when staged by the Lyric theatre in Belfast’s Elmwood Hall - under the direction of Richard Croxford.
The theme concerns the co-dependence between a mother, Mag Foley and her adult, unmarried daughter, Maureen, whose ambition to escape her mother’s control and have a life of her own is at odds with her mother’s determination to keep her tethered, lest she be left alone.
Set in rural Connemara, the action unfolds in their everyday domestic surroundings – a small room with a picture of John F. Kennedy on the mantelpiece and a tablecloth hanging on the range displaying the motto, “May you get to heaven half an hour before the devil knows you are dead”. A comfortable chair stands nearby. Their lifestyle is reflected by the mud on Maureen’s boots after she feeds the chickens, the boiling kettle, the steaming porridge…and radio music, a TV and the romance magazines and love story book Maureen enjoys.
The play opens to a war of words between mother and daughter that continues unrelentingly, disclosing the neediness of both. As the emotions driving the bickering heighten, we are made to realise that something has to give. A climax comes when the mother enters the room to find Maureen, in bra and slip, flirting with a neighbour, Pato Dooley. Unhesitatingly and unscrupulously, she spills the highly sensitive beans and enlightens Dooley about how she had to sign Maureen out of a psychiatric hospital in England 15 years earlier after she went to work in England.
We witness Maureen’s mental health being undermined by the psychological damage her mother unerringly inflicts while Maureen, far from taking it lying down, retaliates by attacking her mother physically. When Mag intercepts the mail and burns the love letter it has brought for Maureen, the daughter’s last hope of escape goes up in smoke. Then Maureen lifts the lethal poker.
It is hard to understand why this work has been classed as realism/comedy when nearly everything it features must surely be construed as tragic, even to the claustrophobia described by Pato :”You can’t kick a cow in Leenane without some bastard bearing a grudge for 20 years”. The theme has strains of the psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Or even of Brian Friel’s , “Lovers“, which has a more engaging and believable outcome.
Both Stella McCusker as the mother and Geraldine Hughes as the daughter gave sterling performances and rose to the demands of being on stage almost throughout, the rapport between them always convincing. Stephen Darcy provided a memorable moment of drama with his soliloquy at the start of the second act and Matthew McElhinney emerged as someone to watch. Take a bow, Richard Croxford!