Bound by disturbing realities and mortifying contrasts, Sean O’Casey’s World War I play, The Silver Tassie has just begun its three month run at the National Theatre. Where Howard Davies’ production lacks in character development and an ambiguous and inconsistent first two acts, it more than makes up for in jaw-dropping visuals, set changes, and strong performances.
Written in 1928, this play was initially plagued by rejection: poet W. B Yeats slammed O’Casey’s efforts in depicting wartime Dublin, criticising the playwright’s apparent lack of actual first-hand knowledge. It was, as Yates said, not based on fact, but rather, opinion. However, O’Casey knew a great deal about the victims of the war, despite never seeing any actual action and the various emotions that run through the core of The Silver Tassie illustrates this.
The first of the four acts depicts a social gathering in which the men return to Dublin for a brief break, highlighting two strong, active characters, Harry Heegan (Ronan Raftery)- the football hero with his trophy, the Silver Tassie, and Teddy (Aidan Kelly) – abusive husband and all-round fear inflictor. Whilst Raftery’s Harry is the protagonist, both characters ultimately represent the sheer enormity of loss that circulates throughout the final two acts like an awful disease.
Act II begins with one of the most affecting and impressive scene changes I have ever witnessed. Set and sound designers, Vicki Mortimer and Paul Groothuis respectively, and lighting supremo Neil Austin create an impressive array of scarily realistic explosions using a party of pyrotechnics that resonate and vibrate throughout the vast auditorium. The Heegan’s home is henceforth rapidly transformed into a battlefield that houses a group of soldiers, including Harry and Teddy. Whilst incredible to look at, this scene unfortunately didn’t evoke any other emotion and instead, I ended up feeling quite restless and confused as the large group of men spent the next half hour singing. Their characters just hadn’t been given enough depth for me to really care about them or what was going on.
Acts III and IV fortunately pick up dramatically as we see yet another strong scene change, this time in a hospital where Harry and Teddy are now shadows of their former selves, injured by the terrible effects of the war, and then at a dance where, amongst celebratory drinking and bristling sexual chemistry, bitter and destructive forces are at play.
There are some moving and aesthetically pleasing moments in The Silver Tassie but nothing earth-shattering. Raftery’s performance is good but I still didn’t particularly feel anything for his character – there’s just not enough time to focus purely on him and to pluck out what makes him a sympathetic hero. Judith Roddy’s bible-basher and nurse are dry-witted, intelligent little balls of majestic beauty; she almost steals the entire show, that is, if you didn’t add Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy’s brilliantly funny duo, Sylvester and Simon to the mix. Admittedly, I wasn’t massively blown away by them in the first act and this is most likely due to my indifference to the play in general during this time, however they shine in Act III with brilliant one-liners and an endearing chemistry.
O’Casey’s play benefits from being housed in the brilliant National Theatre; a place that, without fail always has extraordinary talent – both on- and off-stage. It’s a shame that the characters didn’t initially click with me but overall, it looks great, the final scenes are emotionally complex and the actors are outstanding.
The Silver Tassie is playing the National Theatre until 3 July. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.