Sean O’Casey’s anti-war play was famously rejected by W B Yeats for its first production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Yeats may have had good reason for worrying about how the play would have been received in Dublin in 1928 but, on the strength of this magnificent version offered by the National Theatre, he made a sad mistake. It is a difficult play – a strange and disturbing mixture of naturalism and wild lyricism – but hugely rewarding in the hands of this superb cast, brilliantly directed by Howard Davies.
The play follows a group of young men from Dublin. The first act shows their lives just before they leave to fight in the Great War. It focuses on Harry Heegan, a towering performance by Ronan Raftery, and the football cup, the ‘silver tassie’, that he has helped his team to win. The second act is set on a battlefield and conjures up the horror and madness of the fighting in a strange dream-like vision. The final two acts portray the shattered lives of the survivors back in Dublin after the war.
The first scenes in the Dublin tenement are full of a lively humour but they also paint a picture of the occasional brutality of hard city life. Two of the young men, Sylvester and Simon – part Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, part Greek chorus – provide a comic framework in which the story is set. Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy invest these two roles with a life and warmth that renders their reaction to the eventual tragedy that unfolds around them all the more moving. And the women who share the life of the tenement are all richly portrayed, with virtues and flaws that give life to the community.
The second act – in this production set in a ruined building under constant fire, with flashes of flame and loud explosions that really shock the audience – moves between terror, grim humour, and poetry in a bewildering series of switches. It’s a staggering piece of dramatic writing, given immense power in this inventive production, which uses the full resources of the Lyttleton stage to fine effect.
The final two acts, which take place after the war, again combine humour and pathos brilliantly. And despite the fact that the setting is back in the “real world” of Dublin, we do not entirely recapture the realism of the first act. Act three is set in a hospital ward where the victims of war are being treated, but some moments retain the poetic spirit of the battlefield, particularly an extraordinary duet–like passage for two key characters, one blind, the other in a wheelchair.
Neither the victims of war nor those who love them are romanticised in this play. An abusive husband becomes a tragic figure. A loving fiancée becomes a callous flirt. But O’Casey’s evocation of the deep sadness of lives ruined by a senseless conflict becomes more and more moving as the play moves towards a final scene of stunning power.
This is a play that must be seen. It contains a clutch of splendid performances, brilliantly realised by a director and his creative team, bringing vividly to life a complex play of comedy and tragedy. And the anti-war message is all the more powerful for the realism of the “flaws and all” characters and the refusal to offer simplistic truths.