WORLD WAR I: THE PITY, THE POETRY
A tin whistle, a distant seagull, a ship hooting beyond grimy tenement windows. Indoors Sylvester and Simon bicker and cringe as a tight-lipped virago berates them about hellfire (“Ah, I don’t like the name of the Supreme Being tossed into conversation”). Upstairs a rowdy domestic fight over burnt dinner erupts. Here’s Dublin comedy: small ordinary fun and troubles. They’re waiting for young Harry and Barney to get back from the football with the silver cup, catch their trooopship and avoid court-martial. Ted upstairs also needs to stop smashing his wife’s treasured china with a hatchet and get his kit. The revellers burst in: the siren sounds for embarkation. World War I is about to crash into these lives, for though the 1916 Rising tends to obscure it , Irishmen fought too.
Of all this year’s memorials Howard Davies’ production of this strange, powerful, crazily truthful Sean O’Casey play will stand proud. It was written after O’Casey’s magnificent trilogy about the Irish rebellion (Shadow of a Gunman,Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars) and has the same casually lyrical eloquence contrasted with domestic backchat (the latter mostly in the capable hands of Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy as Sylvester and Simon). It was originally turned down by Yeats at the Abbey Theatre, probably because of the utter strangeness of the second act, a surreal treatment of the trenches.
Davies makes it work. Vicki Mortimer’s staging is spectacular: just as the old mother says “Thank God they’re away safely” blinding and deafening explosions rip the stage into a ruined church, crucifix slumped, audience shocked and shuddering. A great ranting psalm of death and commination shakes the air as singly and chorally – with sudden jolts of realism – men in dim smoke sing, pray and chant their bafflement, horror and flippancy (decades before Oh What a Lovely War, this montage, and less dated now). It disconcerts, and in doing so expresses the rending power of war better than any realism . Finally the great field-gun is dragged round to point at us, and another roar shakes the room.
O’Casey spent time as a sick civilian in a ward of men from that war, and puts Sylvester and Simon beside the blinded Ted and the paralyzed Harry. Again normality clashes against extremes. One minute Simon is cavilling at taking a bath, the next Harry – whose sweetheart is straying with the man who saved his life – cries from his wheelchair “O God of mercies, give a poor devil a chance!”. Finally at the football club Christmas, “a place waving with joy an’ dancing” , the maimed face a new world. The language makes the air vibrate: blind Ted with his darkness that “stretches from the throne of God to the heart of hell”, Harry (a tremendous performance by Ronan Raftery) savagely filling the cup which now means nothing, choosing wine red as the poppies or white as the dead. “Our best is all behind us. What’s in front we’ll face like men” says Ted. Susie – Judith Roddy, vivid and memorable as the hellfire preacher who thaws to gentleness, has the last word. The maimed have a new world to live in and the rest will leave them behind and “Take their part in the dance”. The final dance, against the ruins, is an unforgettable coup de theatre.
Sometimes, on behalf of subsidy-cut provincial theatres and indeed commercial producers staring nervously at spreadsheets, one might feel enviously indignant that the National can deploy huge casts (28, including musicians) and fabulous pyrotechnic staging. But when you see this much intelligence, sincerity and judgement applied to such a choice of play, you thank your lucky stars that we have such an institution at all.
Box office 020 7452 3000 to 3 July