Thursday, 24 April 2014

Theatre review: The Silver Tassie

The National contributes to theatre's commemoration of the World War I centenary with a powerful but unusual, and deeply uneven classic. Sean O’Casey's The Silver Tassie is highly regarded but infrequently revived, perhaps because its structure requires a certain amount of resources, but more likely because audiences must have trouble knowing what to make of it. We follow a year in the life of Harry Heegan (Ronan Raftery) as the war changes him forever, via four scenes that not only differ in setting but also use very different dramatic styles. So we begin with a deceptively naturalistic picture of the home where Harry's parents await his return. On leave from the trenches, he's playing in the final of his football team's league, scoring the winning goal for the third year running. He returns with the silver cup - the "tassie" - but his celebrations have to be cut short as he has a boat back to the front to catch.

This is where we see him next, in an abandoned abbey where his regiment is taking a break from the fighting, and he and his army buddies (Jordan Mifsúd, Sam O'Mahony) express their frustrations and fears, often through the medium of song.

The second half sees him back in Ireland, paralysed below the waist. First in an almost sitcom-like scene in a hospital, and finally at the football club where a year ago he was the conquering hero: The team are celebrating victory again, but Harry isn't a part of it; prowling the halls at the party in his wheelchair, he stalks Jessie (Deirdre Mullins,) the girlfriend who's left him for his uninjured friend Barney (Adam Best.)

O'Casey's disjointed jumping around different styles, from naturalistic to Brechtian to quasi-operatic, feeds into a sense of disconnect and his point about the men injured in war becoming separated from the rest of the world. So does the second and third scene's reduction of the characters from names to numbers. With the local wife-beater (Aidan Kelly) losing his eyes when Harry loses the use of his legs and becoming the only one he feels any connection with, The Silver Tassie sees heroes and villains indiscriminately brought down the same. And Howard Davies's production serves the play as well as I can imagine possible, handling its contradictions and nailing the emotion, while Vicki Mortimer's set, featuring the Lyttelton trademark spectacular scene changes, contributes to an epic feel - the front-of-house warnings about the production featuring pyrotechnics and loud bangs is definitely to be taken seriously.

But however interesting the production is, the play is still problematic. For me the biggest issue was with Harry's father Sylvester (Aidan McArdle) and his friend Simon (Stephen Kennedy) who appear as a vaudeville-style comedy double act in all three of the scenes set in Ireland. Their routines aren't funny, and even if they were their interjections between dramatic moments stop feeling like part of the deliberately jumbled-up aesthetic - by the time of their unfunny routine with a telephone it just feels like everyone's time is being wasted.

Ian's feeling on the final scene was that by the time Harry's outpouring of emotion came, his bitterness was already old news; I think our two beefs with it are related, and that having him wheel around furiously in the background while the tedious clowns do their thing lessened the impact his explosive outburst might have had twenty minutes earlier. Not that Raftery could have given a better performance - he's all guns blazing here and does more than enough to be upgraded to Big Favourite Round These Parts status. In some ways this is a production not to be missed - I can't see the play being better served than this anytime soon - but while I can see what O'Casey's trying to do with the schizophrenic structure, he doesn't have quite a tight enough grip on it for the play to entirely work.

The Silver Tassie by Sean O'Casey is booking in repertory until the 3rd of July at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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