Director Howard Davies has already proved himself to be a good match for Sean O’Casey’s poetic realism, with his 2011 revival of Juno and the Paycock finding the perfect balance between high drama and linguistic expressionism. His trademark epic sets allow the personal to be exploded into the political without loss of nuance, and his revival of O’Casey’s 1928 play The Silver Tassie, is no different. But while this production gives a compelling portrait of a community forced into meltdown by the outbreak of the First World War, it never quite manages to grapple with the playwright’s shift in style from his earlier ‘Dublin Trilogy’, leaving us with an odd hodgepodge of ideas which sometimes struggles to define itself.
O’Casey begins in a familiar enough domestic setting, in a Dublin tenement building with two jokers, Sylvester and Simon (played with gauche hilarity by Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy), playing verbal acrobatics with one another and various interlocutors. Staple smells of cigarette smoke and sizzling steak slide over the stalls, and the scene’s climax sees a victorious Harry Heegan (Ronan Raftery) return from a Gallic football win to the joy of an assembled crowd and his beau, Jessie (Deirdre Mullins). It’s a dynamic, rich scene, which ends with the men heading off joyfully to war, but is largely what we expect from O’Casey.
After a stunning, exhilarating set change from apartment to battlefield, however, the rules change. With explosions ringing in our ears, O’Casey moved from heightened dialogue to out-and-out verse, with an entire scene set in the midst of battle relaying the terror and absurdity of war through sketch and song. Caricatures come and go; motifs are repeated. While Davies has this happen on a distorted, broken version of the set from the opening scene, however, the production seems to resist the play’s movement to unashamed theatricality. Rather than abstract this structure, most of the action takes place with the soldiers perched awkwardly downstage, and the mix of high poetry and gritty naturalism never quite sticks, meaning the depiction of what happens after the war in the second act never has an impact which truly affects.
That said, we get a crystal-clear sense of journey from every character, as each deals with the war in different ways based on their class, gender and marital status. The clowning of Sylvester and Simon, therefore, only becomes more pronounced in later scenes, whilst Judith Roddy shows a humorous shift from God-fearer to go-getter as Susie Monican. Raftery’s deterioration is at the beating heart of The Silver Tassie, with the tragedy of his move from fit and healthy young man to wheelchair-bound cynic injecting drama into the final moments of the piece. But it is Aidan Kelly’s turn as Teddy Foran which is most compelling, as the change in his entire worldview sums up the thoughts of a generation; his blindness paradoxically forces him to see more clearly the injustice around him.
Vicky Mortimer’s set and Neil Austin’s lighting also embody these tonal and political movements, with the scene changes telling stories all of their own; the domestic thus becomes the militaristic, which in turn begets sickness in a hospital and gives way to colour in the final scene. Crucially, however, the remnants of war are always visible in the aftermath, so that hospital beds are surrounded by ruins and a romantic dance takes place among rubble and shrapnel. Conversely, it’s difficult to see much movement in Stephen Warbeck’s composition, which doesn’t quite tap into the musicality of O’Casey’s language and only really manages to evoke genuine emotion in the final moments.
For a play which could so easily be about masculinity, Davies places the women in The Silver Tassie at the forefront of the on-stage battles. They are always present and involved, never simply assigned to watch in the wings, and are changed by the war just as much as the play’s men. This is typified by the haunting closing image, which contains within it as much poetry and insight as is required by the rest of O’Casey’s play but which this production never quite achieves. It’s an epic theatrical depiction of a specific community’s reaction to the First World War, but in an ecology saturated by such stories and themes, it struggles to find a unique voice.