To commemorate the hundredth anniversary of World War One, the National Theatre’s choice to re-stage Sean O’Casey’s anti-war play, The Silver Tassie, was perhaps not an obvious one. Dismissed by W. B. Yeats as unconvincing and incoherent in structure, O’Casey was himself self-critical of it: ‘A generous handful of stones, aimed indiscriminately, with the aim of breaking a few windows. I don’t think it makes a good play, but it’s a remarkable one.’ Howard Davies’ revitalising production proves that The Silver Tassie has the potential not just to be ‘good’, but a powerful drama about the devastation of war.
Focusing around a community in Dublin, the play’s critique about the imperialism of war revolves around its main protagonist, Harry Heegan. In the first of this four-act play, Harry is championed as an athletic young man in the prime of his life; he has just led his football team to victory, and marches off to war as though it’s another sport match. But as the destructive costs of war hit some harder than others, Harry returns home embittered and debilitated, abandoned by those once close to him and who still have a future.
This main thread of the story – ‘young soldier becomes infirm cripple’ – feels slightly too disjointed and artificial to generate the poignance intended. Ronan Raferty gives a very emotive performance as a broken victim of battle – ‘The Lord hath given and man hath taken away’, he cries – but this is a wide-scale rather than a one-man tragedy, and this is where Davies’ production succeeds. It is an epic depiction of the mercilessness of war and the selfishness it evokes in society, and the enormous canon that turns to face the audience before the second act is symbolic of this attack on civilised culture.
One of the main challenges that the play poses is its variety of settings: the tenements of Dublin, the battlefields mid-fire, the veterans’ hospital, and a ballroom dance. Each act is a unique episode of its own, but Vicki Mortimer’s exquisite handling of these set changes keeps the play as unified as possible. In one of the most horrifically evocative scenes of the play, parts of the stage literally explode to falling shells as the soldiers sing their way through carnage. This use of effects creates a breathtaking spectacle that is alone unmissable.
Perhaps the most haunting aspect of O’Casey’s play is its emphasis on how war changes women as well as men. No longer the virile champion, Harry is deserted by his best girl Jessie (Deidre Mullins), whose betrayal with another man creates a pitiful final scene. But it is the character of Susie who most disconcertingly juxtaposes Harry’s deterioration. Initially a God-fearing friend of the Heegan family, she becomes a flirtatious go-getter, a change which epitomises a raw, post-war realism. This portrayal by Judith Roddy steals the show, and it underscored by the play’s closing image: women dancing with what look to be young soldiers, but as the lights become brighter, are revealed as dummies.
If there are any problems with O’Casey’s original script, this invigorating production casts them somewhat to one side. The play’s message is sometimes overwrought, but the visual richness of Davies and Mortimer’s regenerative revival lends it a deeper layer. It will be one of the most memorable Silver Tassies for a while to come.