The last time we saw Seán O’Casey’s great play about the events surrounding the Easter Rising of 1916, it was at the National Theatre (in London, rather than Ireland) and it was firmly set in the tenements of Dublin. The rising shaped the events. Shaped the people. The realism of the setting of the play gave it exact context.
This version at the Lyric Hammersmith is without doubt about the people, and their stories unwind on a backdrop that could certainly be Dublin in 1916. But it could also be Romania in 1989, or Mexico in 1994. Or a dystopian Los Angeles of 2049. The troubles here, as in all great plays, are the troubles of relationships rather than the troubles of the bomb and the bullet.
The play is bookended by songs. The Soldier’s Song is a poignant opening as Mollser, played by Julie Maguire, collapses in a bloody coughing fit which heralds the tuberculosis which will kill her later. She inhabits the stage throughout, neglected and ignored, save by a drunken Protestant neighbour who delights in singing Jerusalem and waving the Union Flag. The solider who arrives to escort her coffin for burial, plaintively sings Keep the Home Fires Burning to close the play.
The open, scaffolded set allows both the sense of any place, and the specific cheek by jowl place of the Irish tenements of 1916 and provides the backdrop for the over-arching themes against which these complex and simple relationships are played out -“Ireland is greater than a mother” and “Ireland is greater than a wife.”
The lives of the women of the play are the strongest themes. Nora Clitheroe’s descent into madness as she loses her husband Jack to the Irish Citizen Army, and then her unborn baby to the stress of battle almost mirrors that of Lady Macbeth. One trying to hold her husband to a normal family life, the other trying to promote him out of it. Nora reflects the ordinariness of family life in 1915, managing the household while uncle and cousin and neighbours talk the talk of revolution at home and in the pub. But when the second half starts in 1916 she is powerless to halt the words turning to actions as the bullets begin to fly.
No one here is a hero. Everyone is ordinary. The soldiers suppressing the rising are not imperialist bullies. Bessie, the drunken Protestant, is not the only one to question the rising, but the fact her son is fighting in the trenches of the first world war is a clear challenge to the priorities that confront these families. Apparently when the play was first performed in Ireland in the 1920s the audience rioted. It was all a bit too raw then.
O’Casey doesn’t rail against independence for Ireland, just the means of getting it, ending with overwhelming sadness and loss for those with little to lose. This play brings out all of that emotion and is well worth seeing, particularly if you have seen one of the more traditional period costume drama versions from recent times.