Theater & art

At ART, an Englishman brings fresh ideas to an Irish classic

Director Sean Holmes (center) with cast members Ciaran O’Brien (left) and Ian-Lloyd Anderson.
Ros Kavanagh
Director Sean Holmes (center) with cast members Ciaran O’Brien (left) and Ian-Lloyd Anderson.

Perhaps there’s something fitting about an irreverent take on Sean O’Casey’s classic of the Irish theater, “The Plough and the Stars.”

The play deals with a foundational moment of the Irish independence movement — the stuff, for some, of flag-waving and patriotic passion — but presents a decidedly complicated view of the events it depicts. In fact, its initial production, staged in Dublin at Ireland’s national theater in 1926, famously inspired a riot among theater-goers expecting a more reverent treatment of the Easter Rising, a bloody revolt that had inspired revolutionary fervor 10 years prior.

Still, when Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, an institution co-founded by W.B. Yeats that hosted that first production of the play, announces a new production to coincide with the centenary of the Easter Rising, there’s a palpable whiff of history in the air. And when the director happens to be an Englishman, and someone who’s been busily seeking to explode certain conventions of the British theater, the result is certain to be . . . complicated.

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“It’s the play that’s most closely associated with the Abbey. It’s also the [play] most closely associated with the Easter Rising, but is fiercely critical of it. And over time it’s become a really popular classic, which is very interesting when it’s actually a rather radical play,” says Sean Holmes, the director in question.

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The resulting production, which runs through Oct. 9 at the American Repertory Theater, isn’t burdened by fashionable but awkward conceits and doesn’t aim to turn the source text on its head. But neither is it a reverent rehash.

Actors are costumed in modern dress. Characters watch cable TV news. And while O'Casey's script begins with a page of highly detailed notes about the particulars of its tenement-house set, this production’s otherwise spare scenic design is defined by a tower of scaffolding. But if the production of this social-realist play takes its eye off the particular historical circumstances that inspired it, one senses it would misfire.

“Everybody felt it was time to do something new with it,” actress Janet Moran says of “The Plough and the Stars,” which she’s seen before in three or four different productions at the Abbey alone. “[Holmes] had no baggage. He wasn’t trying to match anyone’s ideas of what the production should be. He didn’t carry any of that history, but he totally fell in love with the play. So he just came at it wanting to communicate the spirit of the play more than the letter of it, and that was really exciting for us.”

The play takes place before and during the Easter Rising, an armed revolt in which citizen rebels took control of various Dublin locations and proclaimed the onset of an independent Irish republic. Between 400-500 people were killed, more than half of them civilians, and thousands more were injured or later sent to internment camps as punishment. Sixteen leaders were eventually executed. Though the revolt received a mixed response from the public at the time, in the aftermath it acquired the patina of a heroic undertaking and helped inspire the Irish independence movement, which crested with the creation of a free state in 1922.

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“The Plough and the Stars” tracks the impact of these events on more than a dozen Dubliners with various levels of connection to the rebellion.

“In Ireland you’re really playing to an audience that knows it,” Moran says of the play, speaking backstage before a matinee at Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto, “so they’re interested in what you’ve done with it. Whereas here, you’re playing to audiences that are really shocked and stunned by it.”

Holmes is artistic director at London’s Lyric Hammersmith theater. A few years ago, when much of the Lyric’s property — but not the performance space itself — was undergoing renovations, he launched two seasons of “secret theater.” Seasons were scheduled, and tickets sold, without announcing show titles. A resident company of 10 actors (five men and five women) and a group of 10 designers, playwrights, and directors were responsible for all productions.

He launched the initiative with a speech in which he suggested that “maybe the existing structures of theater in this country, whilst not corrupt, are corrupting,” and that it was awkward “being part of yet another British institution constantly trumpeted as the best in the world.” He said he was as guilty as anyone of pursuing star casting to sell tickets and being beholden to strictly literal interpretations of texts.

Even as a guest director at the Abbey, Holmes says, the present production of “Plough” shows that some of the approaches he’s been developing are portable.

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“I feel that with this production we’ve really got a synthesis of, let’s call it the Anglo-Saxon tradition of narrative arc and psychologically accurate characters within more of a kind of European setting where image and metaphor are really supporting the action,” Holmes says, on a Skype call from the Lyric. “We’re really loyal to the play in some ways but aren’t obsessing about the letter of the play and the particular period setting. We’re accurate to the gesture of the play as opposed to the setting of the play.”

Holmes says that a naturalist set depicting a tenement house wouldn’t work, for instance, because today the exposed beams and brickwork would ironically suggest a posh loft. In one scene, actors throw plastic beer cups on the floor of the stage, reminding audiences, the director says, of public festivals where crowds threaten to get out of hand. He was also mindful of the fact he’s English, telling an Irish story in a temple of Irish theater (though he has two Irish grandfathers and visited the country regularly as a child).

While he says the Abbey Theatre wanted a director with “an outside eye” to helm this anniversary production, he never worried he was doing anything too sacrilegious.

“If everybody hated it, the play is strong enough to live on. I wasn’t going to destroy the play.”

THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS

Abbey Theatre production presented by American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Oct. 9. Tickets start at $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.