“There’s no more to be said
For when we are dead
We may understand it all”
Commemorating the start of the First World War has turned into something of a full-time business for the nation’s theatres but in reviving the rarely-seen 1927 Sean O’Casey anti-war piece The Silver Tassie, the National Theatre has hit on something special. The play is structurally extraordinary in the difference of its four acts – a vaudevillian take on an Irish household transforms memorably into the visceral horror of a battlefield haunted by music hall songs, after the interval a hospital-set comedy eventually turns into stark realism, as the shattering effects of war on society are laid bare. Howard Davies’ epic production forges through blood and noise to find a most painful truth.
The cumulative effect may challenge some and is certainly disorientating at times but it also has a form of progression that feels natural, like feeling a way through what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Opening in the Dublin tenement home of the Heegans, the play riffs on Irish stereotypes through the clownish figures of Sylvester and Simon and the neighbourhood archetypes they teasingly mock but soon allows young gun Harry Heegan to take centre stage, boasting the trophy – the Silver Tassie – he and his teammates have won playing soccer, just before they head off to join the British war effort.
The way in which this Expressionist play unfolds means that notions such as character development and narrative thrust just aren’t appropriate here. Instead, there’s a deeply poetic and incredibly moving heart as the brutal anonymity of war, and particularly the insidious class structures of WWI, are plainly presented, that same facelessness bleeding into the instant aftermath in a hospital ward that could just as easily be purgatory. The clarity that comes in the final act thus feels even more powerful for having been so hard-earned, the anguish felt by those who have returned injured that much more keenly felt as they realise how society has moved on without them.
It is tempting to think that O’Casey’s play could have been inspirational for many a playwright who followed. In some lights, Sylvester and Simon’s carousing foreshadows Waiting for Godot’s Estragon and Vladimir and the dense musical tapestry of Act II feels inextricably linked to the fabric of Oh! What A Lovely War. Such anti-war sentiments may be more commonplace now but to think this was written less than a decade after the ‘Great War’ is remarkable (and unfashionably so for at the time, WB Yeats rejected the play for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, citing O’Casey’s lack of combat experience at least in part).
O’Casey’s focus on the psychological wounds of war, as much as the physical, is presciently astute as given beautifully agonising life by Davies and his accomplished cast. Ronan Raftery is pitch-perfect as the haunted, hobbled Harry, Aidan Kelly is infinitely moving as his comrade who has suffered his own afflictions and in powerful contrast, Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy find brilliant humour as the clowns who are never far from the thick of it. Vicki Mortimer’s design makes great use of the Lyttelton’s space not just to create four distinct locations but also evoke a bone-shaking reminder of the terrible sacrifices that were made by those on the battlefield. Extraordinary.