No-one was caught napping at the National Theatre last night when war broke out on the Lyttelton stage.
Mortar fire to the left of us, canons roaring to the fore. Bombs, incendiaries and gunfire. We were in the thick of it and I wasn’t entirely sure we were going to make it out alive.
Sean O’Casey’s flawed expressionist masterpiece, The Silver Tassie, was the Irish playwright’s anti-war propaganda piece and he struggled to get it staged when it was written in 1928.
But as Britain marks the centenary of the start of World War One director Howard Davies has decided to take a pot shot at a revival of this rarely performed play.
It’s not an anti-British drama, but most definitely O’Casey’s polemic against the futile waste of humanity on the battlefield.
The vast Lyttelton stage is put to good use with a stunning set.
We start off in a shabby Irish tenement flat where a wonderful Brechtian double act of Sylvester Heegan and Simon Norton (Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy) eulogise about the heroism and valour of the local golden boy, Syl’s son, Harry.
The lad can’t go off to war until he has led his side to victory in a local derby. He arrives home with the treasured Silver Tassie, a trophy.
He raises it for a toast, the cup symbolising youth, strength and victory.
The devil-may-care Harry kisses his fair Jessie goodbye and marches bravely off to war.
In a spectacular scene change Vicki Mortimer’s set dissolves into the bombed out ruins of a monastery. It’s incredibly impressive.
We’re now pitched into a very noisy battle-zone. The result of the bloody and brutal conflict is that no-one, least of all Harry, is the same again.
He returns home broken, defeated, and old before his time only to find that his loving girlfriend has betrayed him.
O’Casey’s lyrical style takes some getting used to with most of the second act sung.
It’s very Oh What A Lovely War, complete with a caricature English officer and civilian observer.
None of the characters are written in any particular depth and are more symbolic than anything else.
McArdle and Kennedy make a wonderful double act as eejit philosophers trying to put the world to rights from their hospital beds (although we’re never told why they’re both patients).
And there’s a great bit of vaudeville when one of them has to answer the telephone.
Judith Roddy’s pious Susie Monican is an under-used treat. Spurned by Harry for the more glamorous Jessie, she turns from Bible-thumping nag into an inhumane and rather randy nurse who has reduced her war-wounded patients to little more than numbers.
Ronan Raftery makes a convincing central character, taking Harry from victory on the field of sport to defeat on the battlefield.
The Silver Tassie is booking until July.