The Shadow of a Gunman, Tricycle Theatre, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A rough definition of a classic is a work of art that retains a power to move, a sense of relevance, in a variety of contexts. But that doesn't necessarily mean it is equally powerful or relevant in all contexts. What, for instance, is the relevance of The Shadow of a Gunman, a play set in Dublin in 1920, to contemporary Britain?

The Tricycle Theatre seems to suggest an answer in a text that has been inserted into the programme and stuck up on the wall of the lobby, among photographs of the cast - an extract from a report in The Guardian about the killing of Iraqi civilians by British troops. You can see where they are coming from: the action of Sean O'Casey's play revolves around fear of the Black and Tans, the murderous British troops who did so much to recruit support for the IRA in pre-independence Ireland. But the parallel is inexact, to put it mildly.

While the Black and Tans don't emerge with credit from the play, O'Casey's bleak satire is more directly concerned with the way his Irish characters are deformed by the romant- icising of violence. How do we apply this to the people of Iraq? In fact, Dominic Dromgoole's production pushes against such an interpretation, setting the play firmly in its own time and place.

Michael Taylor's set offers a quasi-realistic version of the tenement room where the action takes place, complete with a cracked plaster ceiling through which water occasionally trickles at opportune moments, offering a commentary on the characters' pretensions. The room is inhabited by Seumas Shields, a stock, comic Irishman in his mixture of erudition, superstition and indolence, and his friend, Donal Davoren, an aspiring poet who the neighbours readily assume is a gunman on the run.

The comical first half revolves around the way in which Donal is gradually cajoled into accepting this new role by the flirtatious attentions of his pretty upstairs neighbour, Minnie, and the subservience of a local man requesting his intervention in a petty dispute: like Christy Mahon in Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, written 16 years earlier, Donal is seduced by the glamour of violence.

Unlike Synge, O'Casey faces up to the implications of this seduction: the second half finds the household in terror, as it emerges that the Black and Tans have got hold of the rumours and a raid is imminent.

Dromgoole's production neatly catches the play's peculiar mixture of farcical structure and tragic tone, particularly in the sniping dialogue between Donal and Seumas (Aidan McArdle and Frank McCusker). A leitmotif is Donal's recitation of a line from Shelley: "Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!" McArdle conveys excellently the way Donal slides from quoting for effect at the start, to finding a means of expressing genuine agony at the end.

A lot of the incidental comedy seems slow and hammy - Dromgoole hasn't found a way of rescuing O'Casey's modern sensibility from some early-20th-century theatrical conventions. In the end, the production makes no more than the shadow of a political point; and it feels like the shadow of a great play.

To 6 November (020-7328 1000)