An Interview with Director Sean Holmes
August 22, 2016

What approach did you take to directing this play?

Obviously the play is about a historical event, and it’s set in 1916, but it’s also got to be relevant now. O’Casey actually wrote the play in 1926 and, of course, it’s as much about 1926 as it is about 1916.

If you look at the play very simply, O’Casey takes an event which had already been slightly mythologized, and he says “This event is actually really complicated and complex,” and he shows that individuals behaved contradictorily from moment to moment— selfish and selfless, brave and cowardly.

He puts that mess and those contradictions onstage. And I think that that’s what I’m trying to do. My approach is to try to be true to the spirit of O’Casey’s play whilst not worrying so much about the letter of the play.

I suppose on a personal level, (you may have noticed I’m English, although I am called Sean—spelled the right way), the mischievous part of me also liked the idea of maybe doing it and slightly annoying everyone, because I think that the play really annoyed everyone originally.

For you, especially as an Englishman, what is your view on the Easter Rising itself?

My job is to deliver what I think O’Casey’s view is. I believe O’Casey definitely thinks that it was a complicated event in which people looted shops, in which civilians were killed, in which British soldiers killed innocent civilians, in which the rhetoric didn’t match the reality.

I’m aware that Ireland is not my country, but I’ve got family here, and I used to come over as a kid, and everyone used to go to Mass. I think the really interesting question is the legacy of the Rising. It didn’t really achieve any aims, and it resulted in lots of innocent people dying, but the British response and the killing of the leaders led to a new political consciousness, which then led to independence in a very short time.

You’ve also got a political party that have grown out of that movement, so you want to celebrate this thing, but also the consequences of celebrating it are really difficult. There are also people in the island of Ireland, dissident Republicans, who would say that they are in a direct line with the event, and the state is really uncomfortable with that. That’s why it is exciting to do the play, because of its complexity and its contradictions.

Your production includes a range of modern aspects, from costumes to set and lighting. Is there a risk of the more modern production compromising the authenticity of the original plot and purpose of the play?

I don’t think those choices do anything to the plot; the story is intrinsically the same.

If you said to somebody “What’s the style of The Plough and the Stars?" They’d probably say it’s naturalism. But actually, the more you look at it, it’s not, really.

It’s about presentation and performance. A number of the characters speak about themselves in the third person—every thirty seconds. There’s a weird obsession with image, which is partly a response to poverty and partly a response to being occupied, which makes people powerless.

People want to give themselves agency and status, which become about performance. So you have a play about performance, which is being performed. And the characters are wearing modern clothes so we can understand who they are.

But when Jack finds out that he is in the Citizen Army, he puts on their 1916 uniform. When I bring the British soldiers on at the end, they wear modern battledress—like you see from Afghanistan or Iraq on the news. And they are English because the play is partly about Britain as well, and you know, I live in a country that is still involved in imperialist wars.

What’s important is that we don’t just create a different naturalism, which is 2016 naturalism.

What elements of stagecraft do you make use of to challenge the audience to engage with the themes, or to enhance the subject matter or message of the play?

In our production of this play, we address much of it directly to the audience. The first gesture of the play is acknowledging the audience is there. The other element of stagecraft would be trying not to get tied into naturalism and trying to find a way to break these self- imposed barriers that we build, like imagining a fourth wall.

Finally, what would you say to your actors before a performance?

The objective of the play is: this is what we believe about this material, at this moment in time. And we’re presenting it to you. What do you think? Then that’s the thing to go on with, that confidence: do we believe in what we’re doing? We do. Then let’s go on, look everyone in the whites of their eyes, and let’s win.

Interview by Ciara Walsh & Matthew Connaughton. This interview was originally published by the Abbey Theatre.

This article appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater.

Also in this guide about The Plough And The Stars:

About the Abbey Theatre 


Riots and Risings

by Robert Duffley


The Plough And The Stars

by Catherine McKenna

Publication date:
August 22, 2016

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