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  • The Silver Tassie by Sean O’Casey
  • Robert Hubbard
The Silver Tassie. By Sean O’Casey. Directed by Howard Davies. Royal National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, London. 21 May 2014.

William Butler Yeats did have a point: on the page, the stark and impenetrable expressionism of act 2 of Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie harshly contrasted with the customary word-drunk realism of the other three acts. Of course, Yeats’s 1928 decision to reject O’Casey’s fourth submission to the Abbey Theatre deeply damaged the previously fertile relationship between Ireland’s premiere theatre and one of her favorite sons. In the conventional wisdom of many critics and historians, the relatively scarce production history of The Silver Tassie has since vindicated Yeats’s theatrical instincts.

Eighty-six years later, however, the Royal National Theatre contributed a counterpoint to the historical argument regarding the stage-worthiness of The Silver Tassie. If Howard Davies’ stunning production at the Lyttelton Theatre failed to completely prove a theatrical injustice, it at least succeeded as compelling theatre. His staging achieved this dramaturgical redemption by creatively fusing the internal rift between O’Casey’s realistic social drama with his expressionistic liturgy of act 2. While messy and still a little odd, the production soared.

Act 1 began conventionally enough, resembling the poetic naturalism of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. A handful of colorful Dublin eccentrics wait in a dilapidated flat for most of the neighborhood men to return from a championship football game. The men finally arrive with the coveted victory cup (the Silver Tassie), led by their dynamic star, Harry Heegan, charismatically played by Ronan Raftery. They do not savor victory for long, however. A train soon departs to take the twenty conscripts to fight in the trenches of World War I. But before they board, the colorful group find time to debate the finer points of divine salvation, shrug off troubling examples of domestic abuse, sing melancholy ballads, and drink. Pure O’Casey.

Convincing designs supported the realistic style of act 1. In a nod to the naturalist, the audience smelled, heard, and saw a small slab of blood-red beef sizzle and burn on a central stove. Vicki Mortimer’s scenery, faithfully illuminated by Neil Austin’s lighting, effectively captured the poverty of a tenement slum: the crumbling and water-stained walls vividly illustrated what happens to a low-rent flat in a city prone to rain. Supported by John Bright’s authentic costumes, everything appeared real and true in Dublin until . . .

Act 2 exploded onto the scene, literally. A series of uncomfortably loud flash-bombs erupted so brightly that they lingered as blue spots in the audience’s vision. In full view, the environment impressively shifted from the Dublin flat into a shell-ripped urban jungle somewhere in war-ravaged Europe. The visual and auditory assault eventually ended to reveal a lone Irish soldier standing in the smoke and wreckage. With the ritual posture of a cantor in a cathedral, the soldier—identified in the program as the Croucher—chanted lyrically to the Lyttelton audience: “Can this exceeding great army become a valley of dry bones?” [End Page 122]

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Judith Roddy (Susie Monican) and Ronan Raftery (Harry Heegan) in The Silver Tassie. (Photo: Catherine Ashmore.)

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Ronan Raftery (Harry Heegan) and Josie Walker (Mrs. Heegan) in The Silver Tassie. (Photo: Catherine Ashmore.)

[End Page 123]

A procession of fellow soldiers eventually joined the Croucher in an antiphonal mass of ritualized anti-war rhetoric and stylized movement. While played by the same actors from the previous act, individual identities mostly slipped away into the machine-like collective of military service and suffering. Midway through the act actresses appeared in this masculine world, but also without clear identities. Davies’ staging brought the women in on stretchers as wounded soldiers, all visible skin of their writhing feminine forms wrapped in gauze; their alto and soprano voices added timbre to the ceremonial chanting.

Over the course of act 2, a few characters from the previous act revealed themselves from within the...


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