The Plough and the Stars, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

When it was first mounted, in 1926, Sean O'Casey's play The Plough and The Stars provoked riots at Dublin's Abbey Theatre because of its anti-heroic treatment of the 1916 Easter Rising and its belief that romantic patriotism stood in the way of the soc-ialism that the country really needed.

When it was first mounted, in 1926, Sean O'Casey's play The Plough and The Stars provoked riots at Dublin's Abbey Theatre because of its anti-heroic treatment of the 1916 Easter Rising and its belief that romantic patriotism stood in the way of the soc-ialism that the country really needed.

Ireland's national theatre has regularly been embroiled in controversy, though recently the dramas off stage have rivalled the official programme. The centenary celebrations last year were marred by alarmingly poor box-office returns and an acrimonious dispute between the theatre's board and its artistic director, Ben Barnes, who had to survive a vote of no confidence. Proposed cutbacks and redundancies were thought to threaten the institution's status as a writer's theatre and to risk the closure of the Peacock, its experimental studio.

I wish I could say that Barnes's production of The Plough and the Stars demonstrates that reports about the artistic health of the Abbey have been unduly alarmist. But this staging is remarkable only for the extraordin-ary way in which it manages to take a drama that is bursting with unregenerate humanity and turn it into a resolutely unengaging and chilly experience. Francis O'Connor's design does not help matters, by creating a literal gulf between audience and performers. Here, the interior and exterior scenes of Dublin tenement life are marooned in an expressionist ring of piled-up, looted domestic detritus. As Matthew Warchus proved in his West Yorkshire Playhouse production, where the sets slid forward out of darkness as if dredged up from some great well of history, it is possible to accentuate the non-realist aspects of this drama and to give it a mythic dimension without sacrificing its warmth and its respect for the ordinary.

Cathy Belton is affecting as Nora Clitheroe. She does not fall into the error of suggesting that the heroine is neurotic from the outset. Your initial impression is of an ardent but balanced woman with drive and ambition who could have led a decent, happy life if politics had not in effect kidnapped her husband. Though Belton cannot make the terribly difficult Ophelia-like mad scene work, she paces Nora's decline very movingly.

O'Casey's tragi-comedy shows us the uprising only as it impinges on the tenement's ill-assorted tenants, but Barnes fails to get from his distinguished cast any sense of community. While it would be an exaggeration to say that they play as though they have yet to be properly introduced to one another, the requisite fractious familiarity is missing.

I can't recall ever seeing a pub so devoid of conviviality as the one here through whose windows we see the huge silhouette of the orator as he delivers his murderous rant, and the prostitute who is losing trade as a result of political distractions comes across as a refugee from a drama by Patrick Marber rather than as a descendant of one of the lowlifes in Shakespeare's big-hearted Henry IV plays. Some very fine actors (Eamon Morrissey as Fluther Good; Olwen Fouere as Mrs Gogan) are stuck in a production that does not have the measure of O'Casey's spirit.

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