The Silver Tassie

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(391)

Lyttleton Theatre, London, until 3 July

Sean O'Casey is best known for his "Dublin Trilogy" - the trio of plays dealing with the Irish Revolution and Civil War that made his name as a playwright. The Silver Tassie is less known, but this revival is timed to coincide with the centenary of the start of the First World War. And being an O'Casey play, it brilliantly captures the shattering impact of the conflict on the lives of those who took part in it.

The main character is Harry Heegan, a working class Dublin lad, a soldier in the British Army and a keen amateur footballer. We first meet him on leave from the front line. He has returned to play in a cup final with his club and comes home victorious with the trophy - the Silver Tassie of the title. Accompanying him is his sweetheart, Jessie Taite. The celebrations are short-lived however, and Harry must return to the front with his pals.

The next act, which takes place in a ruined monastery on the Western Front, is the fulcrum of the play. Most previous productions put the interval after the first act, so that the sets could be changed from a Dublin tenement to a First World War battlefield, but this one sees the transformation of the stage before our eyes, to shocking effect. The play also uses music and songs of the time to dramatise the soldiers' reactions to the horror of war. The way O'Casey sends up the remote top brass, with their pointless orders, is one of the best aspects of the play.

When we next meet Harry, he is a changed man. A shell-burst has crippled him from the waist down, and he can no longer play football. A surgical operation has no effect, and, as it becomes clear that he has also lost his sweetheart, Jessie, to one of his pals, he becomes bitter and crushed. The final act is a party at the football club as the team takes possession of the Silver Tassie, the trophy Harry helped them win three times. While his team mates and their wives and girlfriends celebrate, Harry can only rage at everything he has lost.

O'Casey described the play as "a generous handful of stones, aimed indiscriminately, with the aim of breaking a few windows". He added, "I don't think it makes a good play, but it's a remarkable one." He was right. As an "expressionist" drama, it concentrates on symbolism and we don't really get to know the characters as human beings. But it is still powerful. As a howitzer is brought on stage in the second act, the war becomes terrifyingly real. The Silver Tassie is a timely reminder of how the First World War laid waste to millions of workers' lives and dreams.