When “The Plough and the Stars” first premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland in 1926, the audience rioted, outraged at the play’s depiction of the Irish Easter Rising.
As the Abbey Theatre celebrates the 100th anniversary of the rising, it is touring Ireland and North America, with a special performance exclusively for Ohio State students and staff on Thursday in collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences and CAPA.
The Irish Easter Rising was an unsuccessful rebellion against the occupying British government in an attempt to establish an Irish Republic that started on Easter Monday in 1916. By the 1920s, the rising had quickly become legendary, with the rebels regarded as heroes.
“The Plough and the Stars” premiered in 1926, just 10 years after the Irish Easter Rising.
Playwright Sean O’Casey, was a member of the Irish Citizen Army during the rising. O’Casey eventually grew disillusioned with the movement and wrote the play as an anti-nationalist piece, said Kevin McClatchy, an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre who worked with the Abbey Theatre to help bring the play to Columbus.
“He was completely turned off by it,” said McClatchy of O’Casey.”It w as a struggle for glory but with few exceptions, there was no difference (for the people). It was changing a flag from union to republic. There was no difference to the people living in tenements and slums.”
For the tour, the Abbey Theatre is bringing a contemporary take on the play, with a soundtrack of rock music and a mix of modern and period costumes. Actress Rachel Gleeson, who is playing Mollser in the production, said these changes make the show relatable to modern audiences.
“A huge aim of this was to bring the story from 1916 to 2016 and show people how, as humans, we haven’t changed much,” Gleeson said. “You see these soldiers as young men. You don’t see soldiers in period costumes and think, ‘Oh, how sad, this happened 100 years ago,’ but instead bring these 1916 events to the present.”
McClatchy said the themes presented in the play are still relevant today.
“It’s about something that’s timeless,” McClatchy said of the play. “It asks questions, like, ‘How do I define what it means to love my country? Do I even have to love my country? In what way do I have to love my country?’ It’s an immediate question for us, and we can view it through the lens of the Irish and their struggle.”
A Dublin, Ireland native, Gleeson portrays a young girl dying of tuberculous. Gleeson said the new production puts emphasis on her character and her illness, with her appearing in every scene.
“No matter what’s going on, the audience is faced with the presence of death,” she said. “That was what was killing everyone at that time. It emphasizes the poverty and the death in the slums of Dublin at the time.”
The new interpretation of the play comes from director Sean Holmes. An Englishman, he is the first non-Irish director to adapt the play on the Irish national stage.
“To have an English director for an Irish play, it’s almost necessary because it’s us coming together,” McClatchy said. “Theater has a way of leveling the playing field, regardless of any political or religious beliefs. It’s amazing for these ideas to be upfront and center.”
Gleeson said Holmes’ outside perspective helped the show.
“In Ireland, this show is revered as this great play and, in a way, that has kind of made directors stuck when they direct it because it’s so well known and established,” she said. “When he came in, so fresh with energy, it was like a new play.”
“The Plough and the Stars” will be performed at the Southern Theatre at 21 E. Main St. Performances begin Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. with additional performances on Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets cost range from $38 to $68. The special OSU performance will be held Thursday at 5 p.m. with tickets costing $10. Tickets are available via the Department of Theatre and CAPA websites.