Review: The Silver Tassie, National Theatre

“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.  Continue reading “Review: The Silver Tassie, National Theatre”

Review: Damned by Despair, National Theatre

“Look on this and learn. Let that be your punishment”

I don’t think there is another director who frustrates me quite as much as Bijan Sheibani. The devastating simplicity with which he tackled 2009’s Our Class and the elegiac beauty he brought to the Iranian-themed Bernarda Alba earlier this year has delighted, but he’s also responsible for making 70 minutes seem like a pained lifetime in Moonlight and threw everything including his kitchen sink into the multi-authored chaotic carnival ride that was Greenland. So it is hard to know what to expect from his work, but it seems sure to provoke strong emotion in me one way or another. Sadly, his latest foray at the National Theatre – Damned by Despair – errs towards the latter of the above categories. It is still in previews to be sure, but it is hard to imagine that this isn’t a fatally flawed production. 

The play is a religious epic from 1625, written by Spanish monk Tirso de Molina, and delves into sticky questions of spirituality such as is heaven is reserved for those who spend a lifetime believing and can non-believers be redeemed through the accomplishment of good deeds. This is subject matter of a deeply different kind to what our more agnostic tastes are now suited, but the difficulties inherent in translating such ideas to a modern audience are simply magnified by a clumsy new version by Frank McGuinness and some baffling directorial choices from Sheibani which swung from cringeworthy to laughable and almost always misguided – I fear some serious trimming will need to be done if there’s any hope for the production. Continue reading “Review: Damned by Despair, National Theatre”

Review: The Playboy of the Western World, Old Vic

“A daring fellow is the jewel of the world”

Daring indeed for Robert Sheehan, known to some, if not me, for his part in Misfits, chose to make his professional stage debut at the Old Vic in this revival of The Playboy of the Western World. A 1907 play by Irish writer JM Synge which caused riots with its opening performance which seems rather hard to fathom now, but its Set on the West Coast of Ireland in the early 1900s, Christy Mahon is a mysterious stranger who arrives in a County Mayo pub and declares that he has killed his father. But the locals love the drama and the story-telling wit that he brings into their life and rather than condemning him, elevate him with hero-worship and he attracts the romantic attentions of many of a woman, including engaged barmaid Pegeen.

I have to say I was thoroughly underwhelmed by Sheehan’s Christy, lacking the real verve and charisma needed to convince as the absolute charmer he’s meant to be, a really odd piece of casting in that I just couldn’t see what it was that he was meant to be bringing to the show, it certainly wasn’t the gift of the gab. Ruth Negga fared better as Pegeen but also didn’t really possess the kind of mastery of the text that would have pulled me into this world a bit more. But then I don’t think it would have won me over in any case as this is a very broad, Oirish world in John Crowley’s production, with many performances from supporting characters on a knife edge of just too much. Continue reading “Review: The Playboy of the Western World, Old Vic”