Entertainment & Arts

National Theatre revives anti-war play The Silver Tassie

Image copyright National Theatre
Image caption The Silver Tassie is unforgiving in its portrayal of the horrors of war

The National Theatre produced its own First World War classic in War Horse. Now, to mark the conflict's imminent centenary, the theatre is reviving a fiercely anti-war play written in 1928.

Irish playwright Sean O'Casey wrote The Silver Tassie to follow his famous Dublin trilogy. Today the play is seldom staged - in part because of the demands the extraordinary second act makes on any theatre.

Vicki Mortimer, designer of the new production of The Silver Tassie at the National Theatre, says audiences often have a clear idea of how they think a Sean O'Casey play should look.

"They expect a crumbling slice of Dublin tenement life in 1916 or a bit later. It's what his three most famous plays (The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars) call for.

"Often there'll be a big room which has seen better days. Peeling wallpaper, possibly. A greasy fanlight and an old stove.

"In a way, they're now cliches but in this production we use that to give the audience an almighty shock in Act Two."

The Silver Tassie was written for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which had backed O'Casey's early work. Now, he was writing about Ireland and the Great War. It was a conflict with complex links to the fight for independence and the civil war which followed, which he had already put on stage.

O'Casey was appalled when the Abbey turned down the play. The decisive voice had been that of WB Yeats who found it incoherent. He thought O'Casey - who had not fought in the war - had nothing of importance to say.

Ultimately, The Silver Tassie was staged at the Apollo Theatre in London in October 1929. By then O'Casey was living in England and would never move back to Ireland.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Sean O'Casey, who died in 1964, was renowned for his realistic dramas of the Dublin slums in war and revolution

The detailed stage directions for Act Two, set on the Western Front in the fury of battle, seem to call for the resources of modern cinema rather than a West End playhouse.

"The ground is dotted with rayed and shattered shell holes. Across the horizon in the red glare can be seen the criss-cross pattern of the barbed wire bordering the trenches. In the sky sometimes a green star, sometimes a white star burns."

Vicki Mortimer says the descriptions were "clues", helping her and director Howard Davies decide what to put on stage.

"Very few writers today would give such detailed directions. I don't resent them being on the page but there are occasional ingredients which are virtually impossible to decode.

"There were times where I took on board what O'Casey describes but, as designer, I found my own way of doing it. And clearly at the National Theatre, design resources are far more sophisticated than any theatre in 1929."

'Filled with pain'

"We make a live transition from Act One to Act Two," she continues. "In other words, the audience sees it all happen. So the down-at-heel familiarity of the first scenes goes. The audience feels that loss, just as the men at the front did."

Mortimer doesn't want audiences to know too much in advance about what happens during the transition.

"Let's say it's noisy and pyrotechnic. Paul Wanklin, the National's excellent armourer, has been a bit busier than usual."

Image copyright National Theatre /Catherine Ashmore
Image caption Ronan Raftery takes the play's lead role

Indeed, the actors on stage have to manipulate a huge and frighteningly convincing piece of artillery of the era.

At the same time, the play turns from the more naturalistic speech of the rest of the play to a style of dialogue drawing on the Old Testament, the Catholic Latin mass and music-hall.

It's one of the most audacious scenes in 20th Century drama.

Ronan Raftery is the 28-year-old Irish actor playing Harry Heegan, who receives a medal for his bravery but also injuries which shatter his hopes back home in Ireland.

"I think The Silver Tassie is a play filled with pain," he says.

"It's about how people deal with that pain and with rejection. Act Two dramatizes in an extraordinary way what happened to these young guys at the front. Don't forget mainly they were younger than I am now.

"For all its theatricality and expressionism, the act gives the audience a very clear idea of how awful life was for the soldiers."

Aidan McArdle (on TV recently in Mr Selfridge and The Mill) plays Harry's father. "He's described by O'Casey as 65 so I've had to age more than twenty years to do it - but it's a great part, full of humour and humanity.

"I remember I saw the play in Ireland when I was about 17 and I didn't quite understand it. Now I'm an actor I can see it's a fantastic bit of writing and probably unique.

"My character's not in Act Two so in rehearsals I was able to watch from the auditorium. In many ways that bit is more like opera.

"But I'd also say the rest of the play isn't as realistic as people claim. There's always a firm social setting but a lot of the dialogue is poetry, really.

Image copyright National Theatre
Image caption The cast rehearse a scene where Harry says goodbye to his girlfriend before heading to the trenches

"In that sense, Sean O'Casey is a bit like Shakespeare - just look at the slight madness in some of what's said and the richness and eccentricity of the characters."

Raftery says there's little in the piece to baffle a British audience. But, he adds, there are details of Irish society and Irish politics specific to time and place, if people want to see them.

"Irishmen returning from the First World War came back to a country hungry for independence," he says. "After that came the civil war. I think Ireland wasn't much interested in soldiers some said had fought for the empire and to preserve the union with England."

"When I knew I was playing Harry I went to a couple of lectures in Dublin at Collins Barracks (The National Museum of Ireland). I was taken aback to hear how indifferent people had been to men injured in battle, either mentally or physically like Harry Heegan.

"I think that's one reason the play was controversial in Ireland: There's nothing consoling in its picture of war or of how the country regarded the war later."

The National Theatre has thrown its considerable resources into the new staging. Unlike in War Horse there's no heart-warming relationship at its centre to soften the horror of battle. Sean O'Casey wrote one of the least sentimental accounts ever of war and its aftermath.

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