One irony of the Waking the Feminists furore that surrounded the Abbey Theatre’s 1916 commemorative programme was the fact that you really couldn’t get a more feminist take on the Easer Rising than Seán O’Casey’s play. The only minus point for its feminist credentials is the awkward fact it was written by a man.
But that’s the value of art. It complicates, it muddies. And that is what O’Casey’s play does so well. Just 10 years after the troubling birth of Ireland’s violent sundering from the United Kingdom, he cut through any self-serving simplifications. Another irony presents itself: that the play became a cosy heritage piece, wheeled out regularly at the Abbey Theatre.
So, the task for any revival now is to find a way to make the work live again, and shock again. Director Seán Holmes manages this almost instantly, using Amhrán na bhFiann, sung by the consumptive Mollser, as an overture. A bloody coughing fit obscures the final lines, a literal stain left by a poor, ill-housed child on this country’s ambition to cherish all its children equally.
And yet, there is nothing quite so shocking in what follows. There is much energy, and plenty of the voguish flourishes now used to repackage classic plays: contemporary costumes, a bit of amplified cabaret singing, Pearse’s speech on a pub TV, the tenements rendered as scaffolding and hoardings.
Despite that, the tone of the piece reaches back to a musical hall knockabout that O’Casey would readily have recognised. Many of the best moments are broadly comic. Apart from that. both Janet Moran as Mrs Gogan, and Eileen Walsh as Bessie Burgess, excel in giving both their characters layers of subtlety.
There is, in the end, enough of the contemporary here, with nods to immigration, urban poverty and the housing crisis, to unsettle any smug centenary back-slapping about how far we have come.
That, surely, is mission accomplished for art’s role in this year of commemoration.