Sean O’Casey, the maverick genius of Irish theatre. How he refused to bend the knee; how he loved stirring up his countrymen. But O’Casey, the socialist and pacifist is the one that got away. The Silver Tassie was certainly the one that got away, the play that robbed the Abbey Theatre of its most redemptive son when in 1928 W B Yeats and Lady Gregory rejected his ode to the WW1 dead.
O’Casey considered The Silver Tassie the best thing he’d ever done, a mixture of Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars tenement realism and experimentation with German expressionism. It’s a hard mixture to get right and several empty seats after the National’s interval attest to the challenge it still presents to today’s audiences. But if ever there was a play to revive in this WW1 centenary year, it is this one. And, to an extent, director Howard Davies softens the blow.
Four years ago, Garry Hynes’ Druid Theatre production brought out O’Casey’s pre-Beckettian, music hall humour even endowing his two `commentators’, Sylvester and Simon with Godot-like black bowler hats. Davies, more cerebral, settles for over-ripe realism before diving into O’Casey’s Western Front second act satire showing the Irish conscripts dragooned into futile lectures and Vicki Mortimer’s tiled set comes into its own: walls rising to reveal the shattered limbs of a church and Christ statue (the play is soaked in ironic religiosity) as later, seamlessly, walls will drop back in to create a hospital ward and a dance hall, once the scene of Harry Heegan’s greatest triumph as local football hero. Now, returned from the front, we will see him, wheelchair bound, his legs useless, cruelly rejected by former girl-friend, Jessie. With the blind Teddy, it is one of the most painful scenes O’Casey ever wrote.
Davies’s production is at its lucid best in the difficult Act Two. Created by O’Casey as a Georgian chant, it is part Oh What a Lovely War and in Stephen Warbeck’s brilliant settings, Brechtian and Weill inspired.
Still a raw and rare encounter, Davies captures the irony and in a closing dance of women with ghostly conscripts, also the pity.