The Silver Tassie
By Sean O’Casey
Directed by Howard Davies
Set Design by Vicki Mortimer
National Theatre, London
1st May 2014 7.30pm
The programme tells the story of O’Casey submitting the play to the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in 1928, right after his run of three major successes which kept the theatre afloat. W.B. Yeats, whose own dramas were not faring well, rejected it. It had to go to London to get staged. This was seen as Yeats jealousy at work. I suspect Years had a point. It needed an editorial hand of the kind everyone was too proud to accept in those days.
It’s four acts of approximately equal length.
Act 1: Harry as football hero
Act One sees us in the Heehan’s house in Dublin, as the football hero son and his violent neighbour Teddy are about to go off toWorld War One. We see Harry Heegan, the hero has just won the silver tassie (football cup) for the third time. He kisses his girlfriend, Jessie, goodbye. The set in every act as is as good as you can get. I was uncomfortable for the first ten minutes with accent, articulation and projection, and frankly found it hard to follow, as did my companion, and two people we heard talking in the interval. But the story was promising.
Then the set shifts to war in Act 2, with the most spectacular stage flashes and explosions I’ve ever seen, and we get massed troops, with Harry in the middle, but inexplicably no one else has Irish accents anymore. The set is fantastic, but stylistically we have operatic singing, then English officer silly buggers dancing about as in Oh, What A Lovely War, bits of folk song and lots of crashes and bangs. War is indeed incomprehensible and garbled, which was how I’d sum up Act Two, in spite of it being a tour de force of set design, and lighting and sound effects. All five star. Great direction of movement. Shame about the script. Shame about the play.The interval came here. My two word summing up was garbled, and in 1920s great artist as playwright style, pretentious.
Act 3: The hospital
It pulls it back in the second half, returning to coherent narrative, and possibly the hospital set closed off the main speakers at the front, rendering them clearer, or I’d got used to the accents. The hospital act is extremely good in writing and execution, and the set showed further wards behind with stuff going on and stretchers coming and going. Harry’s in a wheelchair. Teddy’s blind. The highly religious Susan Monican from Act One is now nurse with a sway to her hips and a surgeon in pursuit. Jessie won’t come and visit the embittered Harry. She’s fallen for his friend Barney, who by saving Harry’s life got nominated for a VC.
Act 4: The football club dance
Act 4 is after the war, the football club dance. Harry’s crippled, Teddy’s blind. Jessie’s in love with Barney. Susan’s got the surgeon in tow. Teddy’s wife, beaten black and blue in Act One, now controls him. Harry, obviously can’t dance. The affecting ending has all the women in the cast dancing with floppy dummies of soldiers. OK, a spectacular production, live music, cast of thirty. Great performances. That Act Two is so spectacular, but stands out like a sore thumb, and really was garbled. I don’t like the play overall. If Yeats and O’Casey had both got off their high horses in 1928 and got some collaboration in, it could have been focussed and allowed to shine.