THEATRE : Oh, the pity of it all

The Silver Tassie Almeida, London
Because it was loftily rejected by Yeats for the Abbey Theatre, one's instinct is to champion The Silver Tassie, Sean O'Casey's anti-war play of 1928, a piece in which realism jars with expressionism, and comedy and tragedy collide. But Lynne Parker's revival makes me wonder how the author of such spirited works as Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars could have managed to make a play about the pity of war feel, at some vital level, so strangely deficient in ordinary humanity.

Taking its cue from a poem by Wilfred Owen, the play has a strong storyline. On a few days leave from the front, Dublin sporting hero and every girl's fancy, Harry Heegan, leads his local football team to its third successive cup win. But when he next returns, paralysed from the waist down, this likeliest of lads is sunk in embittered hopelessness. By cruel irony, he owes this tragic half-life to his old pal Barney who has been awarded the VC for rescuing him from the battlefield. Harry's former girlfriend, Jessie, switches her affections to his decorated saviour.

Stuart Graham is splendid in the main role, both as the exultant golden boy and as the rancorous, broken-hearted invalid who propels himself round a world that would rather forget him. There is one matchlessly moving moment here when Graham's Harry softly sings a snatch of "Swing low sweet chariot" and his voice peters out to a stricken soundlessness on the final"comin' for to carry me home".

Simple touches like that seemed to me much more eloquent about the plight of war's victims than did the ponderously symbolic second act set in France. With its plainsong-chanting soldiers, its ironic reversals of Ezekiel, and the unholy clash it orchestrates between the rituals of Christianity and of war, the scene feels off-puttingly like the illustration of a thesis.

Parker rightly perceives that the expressionism is not confined to this scene and, accordingly, the whole play is enacted within a surround of paintings in which the Virgin and the crucified Christ are shown in juxtaposition to apocalyptic imagery. The curtains at the Avondales' War Victory Dance where Harry mangles the silver tassie, are patterned with the names of the dead.

There is something mechanical and strident, though, about the way the play depicts the womenfolk's callous reaction to the war-damaged. Though she is allowed some belated guilt at the end, Harry's girlfriend Jessie (Nell Murphy) is presented as making her treacherous switch without scruple. His mother (Doreen Keogh) is principally interested in his disability allowance. The female situation is handled with a lack of generosity and, notwithstanding some fine comic moments from Silvester and Simon, the play has a pinched, programmatic quality. The ending accepts that, for the unmaimed, life must go on, but in this production the life that continues looks such a discredited, cynical affair, you can't muster the least fellow feeling.

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Paul Taylor