A three-play Saturday does a lot: it tires, to be sure; it impresses by showing off a versatile and durable company; and above all it stresses internal logic and consistent themes running throughout the plays. It is a daunting task, staging three plays in one day, but the Irish Rep’s “Dublin Saturday” series proves by turns captivating, frustrating, and moving. The distinctive brand of the powerful Irish playwright Sean O’Casey is on full display in such a way that showcases his genius without hiding his limitations.
The Chelsea theater company has dedicated their entire season to O’Casey’s monumental “Dublin Trilogy”: The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926). The three plays have rolled out in repertory since January, and now that all three are up, the Irish Rep is staging the entire trilogy on a series of “Dublin Saturdays,” with curtain times at 11.00, 3.30, and 8.00. On the Saturday I attended, it appeared that a few patrons were popping in for one or two shows, but most seemed in it for the full marathon, which created a sense of comraderie amongst audience and company. This was a unique and trying experience for all involved, but we were in it together.
O’Casey’s trilogy explores the slow, imperfect trudge of Ireland toward independence. The forty years or so surrounding the dawning of the twentieth century was a tumultuous time for the country and its divided citizens. After generations of subjugation under the British Empire, some groups of Irish people started to develop and enact notions of independence, efforts that faced resistance not only from the imperial English but also from Irish citizens loyal to the British crown. Even when independence movements gained steam, strong opinions diverged on the best path forward and internal strife blossomed.
It was a time of energy and danger, of fervor and patriotism that often erupted into violence, and of irreparable change still felt in Ireland today.
O’Casey explored this explosive time in his home country in his trilogy. A devout socialist, O’Casey saw economic and class strife embedded within clashes of military and politics, and so he built his trilogy within the slums of Dublin’s tenements. Some of his characters have a mind for revolution, some dwell on more quotidian troubles, but all live in a poverty that consumes their lives.
The Irish Rep made what seems like a wise decision to stage the plays in order of their setting rather than their composition. So The Plough and the Stars opens the proceedings focusing on the 1916 Easter Rising, followed by The Shadow of a Gunman’s focus on the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), and Juno and the Paycock, which plays out over a backdrop of the 1922-1923 Irish Civil War, closes the series. Although it would be a mistake to consider these plays overly focused on the specific events of Irish political history, the decision nonetheless escorts the audience through a historical journey. O’Casey certainly matured as a dramatist over the course of this trilogy, so staging them in order of composition would have provided more insight and reflection on his development as a dramatist, but the Irish Rep seems more concerned with exploring O’Casey’s stories.
Above all, those are stories of poor Irish with few options for upward mobility and only fleeting access to happiness. The Irish Rep has stressed this central theme by transforming its theater into the dank tenement space inhabited by O’Casey’s characters. Walls throughout the theater are covered with cracked brick and lines of dingy laundry hang above the audience’s seats. This effect extends Charlie Corcoran’s excellently rundown sets, which give a clear sense of beleaguered home to these characters.
Each of O’Casey’s plays explores the intersection of revolutionary drives and everyday families. The Plough and the Stars focuses on a wife’s debilitating worry for her rebel soldier husband. The Shadow of Gunman find a poet manqué flirting dangerously with the reputation of a gunman on the run. And Juno and the Paycock seems almost entirely a domestic tragicomedy, if not for the foreboding presence of a wounded and haunted former soldier.
O’Casey’s master theme is therefore the very everydayness of revolution, a concept that the Irish Rep captures in this series with great skill. Directors Charlotte Moore (Plough), Ciarán O’Reilly (Gunman), and Neil Pepe (Paycock), each stress the individual lives and relationships at the heart of these plays. O’Casey was without question a man of big ideals, but his concerns lied principally with the regular people pushed to the bottom of society. These directors succeed in finding and celebrating those people.
The fifteen-person company finds many performers doing double and triple duty, impressing not only with their endurance but with their range. Sarah Street plays a carefree prostitute in Plough, but recalibrates to a charming and heartbreaking Mary Boyle in Paycock. Maryann Plunkett doubles in the same pair of plays, travelling from a despondent and angry commentator on the action in Plough to the measured but careworn Juno Boyle in the nightcap. Juno is a demanding character for any performer, but Plunkett is especially remarkable in her ability to succeed in the role after satisfying very different demands in Plough. Carrying the most weight in the company is James Russell, and Irish Rep regular and here a central character in all three plays. He moves from a stalwart and principled Marxist to a frustrated poet to an upper-class Charles Bentham dropping in on the slums and struggling to fit in. Russell navigates between roles with considerable nuance.
For what is a sizable genius, O’Casey did not in this trilogy effectively escape the twin pitfalls of the maudlin and the macabre, concepts only exemplified by the unique conditions of Dublin Saturday. At least one character in each play is desperate, flirting with despondence in ways that add an important sour note to each play’s tapestry of moods. The plays are regularly funny, which works counterpoint to emphasize their political tragedy, but the maudlin and the macabre flow throughout them as a means of recalling to us how terribly gritty and painful this period of history was for so many. That’s an important reminder that takes a particularly sharp toll after nearly eight hours of theater. Indeed, as the trilogy closes with two hopelessly drunk Irishmen reasserting their moral high ground while withered on the floor, the cumulative effect of the series’s melodrama threatens to overpower its more provocative ideas.
The collective mood at the end of my Dublin Saturday seemed to be one of accomplishment—we did it, audience and company together; we made it from an 11.00am opening curtain to a 10.30pm final bow. But the heaviness of O’Casey’s assessment of Dublin tenement life was inescapable. In a strange alchemy, Dublin Saturday accentuated the deep sadness and worry that runs throughout these plays, leaving little room for human strength.
Performances continue through June 22nd with two additional 3-show Dublin Saturdays on June 15 and 22. Ticket information is available here.