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Mad, not so bad: Tom Hollander as Henry Carr in “Travesties” (©Johan Persson)


Growing up the Catholic north-east of England, where dramatic tastes remained rooted in Ireland long after memories of life across the water had turned to Friday night folklore, I reached saturation with the work of Sean O’Casey by school-leaving age. Barely a year went by without a run of Juno and the Paycock at Consett Technical College. A few decades on, it’s hard to recall the grip that O’Casey’s work had on English imaginings of a pre-1918 Dublin.

The Plough and the Stars, the most emotionally charged of his Dublin Trilogy, feels like a period piece a hundred years after the Easter Rising. At the National’s Lyttelton, Vicki Mortimer’s cavernous design of a decaying tenement looks like an Irish Broadway production from the 1970s — Hopper-esque scenes, etched out in melancholy shades of sludge and dim street-lighting. Querulous, if preternaturally lucid, Dubliners eke out life on the precipice of revolution.  When Jack Clitheroe (Fionn Walton) chooses the cause of militant Irish nationalism against the imprecations of his anxious wife Rosie (Judith Roddy), the tone is set for a tragedy, relieved by O’Casey’s mordant lines. “You’d have felt the loss of him less sharply if you’d been married for longer,” is the back-handed consolation doled out to a grieving widow. It reminds us that besides being the purveyor of shouty arguments, long adjectival sentences and intense dissections of the eddies of Irish history, O’Casey was really a member of the no-nonsense party: “I’m Irishman enough not to lose my head wi’ folly and foreigners,” is the tart rejoinder to the earnest Marxist, Young Covey, a dead ringer for the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in his surly self-righteousness.

Nothing ages so fast as tenement melodrama, however, and directors Jeremy Herrin and Howard Davies have accepted the slightly creaky period feeling of the play. If women bear the emotional brunt of O’Casey’s work, the pen portraits of nationalists and socialists strike me as the more slyly convincing. Covey preaches control of the means of production, while being far ruder to the local barfly prostitute than the other characters. He’d be so happy in the Momentum movement today — theoretically fond of mankind, not so loving to the version he encounters on a daily basis. By the same token, the nationalism O’Casey distrusted is denounced in adept parodies of Padraic Pearse’s rabble-rousing speeches. That has its own alarming echoes in a Europe in some ways unrecognisable a century after the First World War — while bearing its scars and echoes. “Where there’s talk of religion, there’s an argument not far behind,” prophesies one of the tenement sages. It’s never a cheerful night round at O’Casey’s, but his understanding of the crooked timber of humanity, caught up in the sweep of events, is undimmed.

History in all its coincidental oddity is given the brilliant linguistic somersault treatment in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties — one the most appealing of his works because it wears such a dazzling amount of learning with a lightness that would have impressed Mary Berry in the dramatic equivalent of the Great British Bake Off

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