Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Silver Tassie, by Sean O’Casey, National Theatre; reviewed by Ian Oakley

This play is one of O’Casey’s lesser known works, but it is a timely revival, as the subject matter is the First World War.
The play opens in a Dublin tenement, a group of soldiers are about to return to the front. As the action unfolds we see them interacting with their families, wives and girlfriends.
What gives the play an edge in this year where there is so much commemoration, is its unique perspective.
The First World War was the last war in which a United Ireland was part of the British Empire and fought as such.
When the Easter Rising occurred in 1916, many more Irishmen were being killed in the trenches than died in the Rising.
The play reveals that the primary motive for many Irish working class men in signing up was the money, the pay and payments supported their families at home.
In Act Two, the action moves to the frontline and we move to a more fantastical presentational presentation of the war, though none the less horrific for that.
There is a running joke where a journalist visits the soldiers and dives for cover every time he thinks they are being shelled.
This character reminded me of Blair and Cameron visiting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and boring the poor soldiers with their awful speeches.
The play then moves to a Dublin hospital and we see the consequences of the fighting in disable and blinded soldiers.
Finally, it ends with a grizzly party, where there is nothing to celebrate.
There is much dark humour in the play, but leaving the theatre my abiding memory is the horror of war, especially for these Irish veterans, as not only have they suffered the fighting they have returned to a Southern Ireland which will ignore them and their sacrifice, obsessed with the heroes of Irish independence.
When the play was first performed in the late 1920s, it was not a commercial success, but this may have been as it followed shortly after the premier of Journey’s End, another great play about the First World War.
Journey’s End gives the perspective of the junior officers in the trenches, an interesting contrast to the ordinary soldiers’ experience on display here.
With the anniversary of the First World War we have already had the neocon Michael Gove pronouncing how the War was quite a good thing.
That this journalist fool is running England’s school is bad enough, but for him to be pronouncing on history is embarrassing.
Still, let him go and see The Silver Tassie, and if he still thinks war is so wonderful, let’s drop him with an AK-47 in the middle of Iraq and see how he gets on.

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