(Clare Brennan’s article appeared in The Observer, 7/30; Photo: ‘Ophelia-like’ Sophie Lenglinger as Nora, with Liam Heslin as Jack, in The Plough and the Stars. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh.) 

Town Hall theatre, Galway
O’Casey’s three plays of working-class Dublin life encompass conflict, grief and the human spirit in Garry Hynes’s fine production

 A highlight of this year’s Galway international arts festival (GIAF), DruidO’Casey is a new play cycle by Druid theatre company of the “Dublin trilogy” by one of Ireland’s greatest playwrights, Seán O’Casey (1880-1964). The three plays are presented back to back, in chronological sequence, over one day. The experience is revelatory. O’Casey grew up in working-class Dublin, and his portrayal, here, of life in the city’s tenements during the years of conflict between 1915 and 1922 becomes an expression of the wider world, its yesterdays, todays and tomorrows.

This fine production by Druid’s co-founder and longstanding artistic director, Garry Hynes, probes the ambiguities and indeterminacies of O’Casey’s texts, ultimately requiring us to take seriously a laughter-raising line: “There’s no such thing as an Irishman, an Englishman, or a German or a Turk; we’re all only human bein’s.”

Actors, revelling in the richness of O’Casey’s Dublin demotic, bring his impoverished characters to rumbustious life. Francis O’Connor’s design roots their tenement homes in reality with smoking ranges and solid props, but backs them with walls that have the sheen of pale-green marble, rising in slabs – like a memorial pressing on to the living.

As The Plough and the Stars (1926) opens in 1915. Fluther (comically brilliant Aaron Monaghan) is fixing a lock on to a door for a young wife, Nora, who wants to keep the world beyond at bay (an inverted echo of Ibsen’s bourgeois Nora, slamming the door as she leaves her “doll’s house”). She cannot: a door is always both entrance and exit.

In a pub, Nora’s neighbours are drinking and wrangling. Beyond the window, a speaker addresses a rally: “Without shedding of blood, there is no redemption!” Hynes’s direction highlights O’Casey’s ironic juxtaposition. Pausing their shenanigans, light streaming on to their upturned faces, drinkers are disciples looking for guidance, sinners longing to be saints (lighting, James F Ingalls).

Nora’s husband, Jack (swithering, Liam Heslin), follows the “Starry Plough” flag to 1916’s Easter Rising and his death. Nora flees her home, miscarries her baby and loses her mind (Sophie Lenglinger, Ophelia-like). Bessie, the aggressive, swaggering, Rule, Britannia-singing neighbour against whom Nora wanted to lock her door, becomes the play’s improbable martyr (Hilda Fay, soul wrenching), shot trying to protect Nora. Soldiers in the street mistook her silhouette in a window for that of a sniper.

This indeterminacy of appearances is at the heart of The Shadow of a Gunman (1923). It is May, 1920, the Irish war of independence is being waged. In a room in a tenement sits Donal, fashioning a poem. His roommate, Seumas, is getting up (blustering Rory Nolan). Maguire (Heslin) breezes in and out, leaving a bag behind. A stream of neighbours follows, in awe of Donal. All imagine he is on the run, including “lovely little Minnie”.

“Minnie is attracted to the idea, and I am attracted to Minnie,” smiles Donal to himself (self-indulgently self-centred; Marty Rea). “And what danger can there be in being the shadow of a gunman?”

When danger appears, Donal and Seumas cower, quivering on a bed, Laurel and Hardy-comical. They leave the fearful Minnie (butterfly-like Caitríona Ennis) courageously to assume the role Donal no longer wishes to pretend to.

Closing the day, Juno and the Paycock (1924) at first seems disappointing. We have come to expect hilarity and theatricality, balancing outrageously against tragedy. Initially, the presentation of the Boyle family feels flat by comparison, staid and standard naturalism. In fact, it turns out to be the magnificent culmination of what has gone before.

It is 1922. The Irish civil war is under way. Juno struggles to feed her family: workshy husband, a “captain” who has never been to sea; maimed son Johnny (Tommy Harris, haunted), former Irregular turned informer, waiting fearfully for retribution (although the family does not know this); and daughter Mary (Zara Devlin, from pert to crushed), on strike because “a principle’s a principle”. News of a legacy brings hope, credit, material goods. It’s a mistake. There is no inheritance.

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