The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Spring-Summer 2014
One of Sean O'Casey's less-known plays, The Silver Tassie is constructed on radical scene-to-scene changes in mode and tone that pose real challenges to both directors and audiences.
Howard Davies, his actors and the National Theatre's technical departments face bravely and inventively up to the tasks, and it is the audience's willingness to go along with them that determines the production's success.
Written in 1928, The Silver Tassie is an anti-war play addressing what the culture had come to recognise as the single salient fact of the Great War (and something that had apparently never really occurred to anyone before): that young men are killed and maimed.
To address this horror, O'Casey opens the play in light comedy, switches abruptly to poetic nightmare expressionism, and then closes in heartfelt domestic drama. The first scene introduces us to two Irish soldiers on leave at home. Harry (Ronan Raftery) is a local hero for winning his rugby team the league cup (the 'tassie' of the title). Teddy (Aiden Kelly) is a drunk and a bully.
Our vision of them is coloured by the two stage Irishmen (Aiden McArdle and Stephen Kennedy) who serve as a kind of chorus, looking benignly on all about them in between their drinking, singing and tale-telling.
I'll skip over the second scene for a moment. The third is set in hospital, with Harry crippled and Teddy blind, each having difficulty facing a future so different from their past. The final scene, set at a party, shows life going on without them, leaving them with no options beyond heroic fortitude or despair.
The play is remarkably balanced, expressing full sympathy for Harry's tragedy but also forgiving Teddy his earlier sins and even excusing the flighty girlfriend who deserts Harry for an able-bodied lover. There are no villains, just the recognition in specific individual terms of the wreckage and waste left even among the survivors of the war.
But now back to that second scene. Set in the midst of battle, it shows a company of men being alternately frightened, bored, angry and above all helpless, and its mode is not naturalistic. The writing shifts into verse, with frequent songs, and what individualised characters there are – a couple of officers – are satiric cartoons.
If director Howard Davies had little challenge with the light comedy of the opening or the intimate drama of the later acts, here he has to employ a full range of styles and techniques to capture O'Casey's vision.
The performers swing between singing, antiphonal chanting, emphatic verse recitation, a kind of proto-rapping, Brechtian in-your-face direct address and even rhythmic echoes of the opening number of The Music Man – all of it punctuated by quite impressive stage pyrotechnics to remind us that they're under fire.
I suspect that many will find this excitingly inventive and evocative, and just as many will find it uninvolving, self-conscious and boring.
I lean more to the latter, finding the sequence overblown and overkilling the limited point it actually makes very quickly. The framing scenes are more effective not just because they're more accessible but because they have more to say and say it both thoughtfully and efficiently.
All credit to all the performers I've named as well as to Josie Walker, touching as Harry's mother, and Judith Roddy, delightful as an evangelical moralist who loosens up a bit as the play progresses.
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