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Lloyd Cooney (Lieut. Langon) and Liam Heslin (Capt. Brennan) in The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey, directed by Sean Holmes.

Ros Kavanagh

After 26 years, Ireland's national theatre, the Abbey Theatre, is returning to Toronto.

The Abbey will stage The Plough and the Stars by Sean O'Casey in Toronto from Sept. 14 to 18 at the Bluma Appel Theatre as part of their "Waking the Nation" centenary program. The tour, which has stops in Ireland and North America marks 100 years since the 1916 Easter Rising, when Irish republicans sought to end British rule and establish an independent Irish state.

The Plough and the Stars, written by O'Casey, one of Ireland's premiere playwrights, follows residents of a Dublin tenement shelter during the Rising. When it premiered at the Abbey Theatre 90 years ago, it was met with riots.

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The current production has been revitalized by Olivier Award-winning director Sean Holmes, the first non-Irish person the Abbey has employed to direct The Plough and the Stars.

"I wanted to do that [hire Holmes] to see if there was anything fresh in the play that he could find that was relevant today," says Fiach Mac Conghail, artistic director of the Abbey. "And secondly, I didn't want it to be done in a traditional setting. I wanted to see if this play could speak to younger audiences."

Despite the historic nature of the play, Mac Conghail believes it "stands the test of time" because of the universal themes it presents, including "humanity and fundamentalism and the nature of war and poverty."

"Essentially it's about how ordinary folk try and survive against the backdrop of historical change. You can look at it in terms of what's happening in the Middle East, you can look at it in the context of what's happening in other areas of conflict around the world," he says. "I think that universality will engage with any audiences around the world."

Mac Conghail hails Sean O'Casey as "one of the greatest writers of the 20th century," praising his use of universal themes but also the innovation he brought to the structure of his plays. Ironically, Mac Conghail's great-grandfather, a stationery and tobacco shop owner, was "the first person to bring Sean O'Casey to the Abbey Theatre."

"The unique thing that O'Casey has brought to his plays is that cross between realism and expressionism," Mac Conghail says. "The language that he uses has an extraordinary musicality about it and I think that's something that Toronto audiences will find quite affecting."

In the coming years, Canadians can expect to see not just O'Casey's plays but many Abbey productions in Toronto. The Abbey plans to visit Toronto and other North American cities on a biennial basis from now on. This will give Canadian audiences the chance to see both classics and works by new writers, Mac Conghail says.

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"There's a lot of supporters of the Abbey Theatre and supporters of the Irish art scene in Toronto," Mac Conghail says. "Our plan is to re-engage properly with Canadian society and Canadian culture so that it becomes a much more sustainable relationship than waiting for another 26 years for the Abbey to visit Toronto."

The Toronto performances will be followed by tour dates in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio.

Tickets for The Plough and the Stars go on sale for Canadian Stage season-pass and single-ticket holders on June 21, and to the general public on June 28.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said Sean Holmes is the first non-Irish director the Abbey has employed. In fact, he is the first non-Irish person the Abbey has employed to direct The Plough and the Stars.

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