So I’m not really sure how to explain this one, and has to be one of the stranger evenings I’ve spent in the theatre. It opens in a working class Dublin tenement where a family and neighbours are waiting for Harry to return from playing in a local football match. He’s on leave from the First World War and his ship departs imminently. Most of this first scene anticipates Harry’s arrival, details life in the community and explores the domestic drama of those living in the flats. This is all fairly interesting and engaging stuff building up to a triumphant football team holding the Silver Tassie (a sports trophy) aloft, before boarding his ship back to war.
Then the second act starts and boy was that a surprise – in more ways than one. First the amazing set transformation pulled apart the tenement flat, transforming it into a bombed monastery in Northern France now being used as a hospital. Amid the sounds of canons and shells which produced some impressive pyrotechnics on stage, a group of battle weary soldiers come to rest. After that I pretty much lost the thread. Almost the entirety of this part was sung which was hugely disconcerting after the fairly ‘straight’ drama of the first scene, and there was no plot as such, just a loose collage of fairly clichéd phrases and characters. This was an expressionist vision of the First World War but without much sympathy or engagement with the men fighting because the constant singing and disjointed phraseology was very alienating. Maybe that was the point but the combination of the first two acts made for a very uneven tone.
Coming back from the interval you have no idea what to expect – would there be more singing, would anything make sense? Scene three is set in a Dublin hospital and like the first act is played completely straight. Harry has been injured and can no longer walk. What is less clear is why two of his civilian neighbours were in the same ward. But thank goodness they were because at least that added some light relief. The final scene is at a party some months or years later, back at the football club where Harry, now in a wheelchair is dismayed to discover his sweetheart has met someone else. The message is pretty strong – the men who were wounded in the war cannot reintegrate into civilian life, they are in a world apart, so the best thing everyone else can do is ignore them and get on with their lives – charming!
The critics have been very positive about this production and refer derisively to Yeats’s famous rejection of The Silver Tassie when playwright, Sean O’Casey presented it to him at the Abbey Theatre. His reasons were that O’Casey had no direct experience of fighting in the war and it felt like 4 almost unrelated scenes. I think I’m with Yeats on this one and although I’m sure this is a very important landmark in expressionist theatre or some such, it just wasn’t for me.
Having said that it is frustrating when critics give a bad review to play they dislike regardless of the quality of what they’ve seen, so I will say that given the limitations of this play I cannot imagine a better version than this one at the National. The acting is pretty good for what are fairly one-dimensional characters and the production values are extremely high as you would expect at this venue. Even the aberrant second act was done very well. But would I recommend it? High ticket prices aside, the test for that is whether I would see this version again or another production elsewhere. And honestly… no I wouldn’t, so take from that what you will.
The Silver Tassie is at the National Theatre until 3 July. Tickets start at £15 if you can get one, otherwise more like £39.