A First World War play set in Dublin and France, The Silver Tassie is a bizarre, unsettling song-poem of a production full of sad echoes and slow beating rhythms. It doesn't make for an easy evening – it's an odd, experimental mixture of the domestic and the surreal without characters you can fully grasp hold of. But the distance created seems intentional, a way of making us feel the senselessness of war, and the performance has a sustaining wit and lyricism throughout. And pyrotechnics. More about those later.
A precursor for Oh What A Lovely War, Sean O'Casey's play was famously rejected in 1928 as "a series of unrelated scenes" by none other than William Butler Yeats. Audiences at the National Theatre in 2014 do seem slightly baffled by its mix of kitchen sink drama, comi-tragic operatics and a kind of twisted incantation, though Yeats' accusation doesn't stand in this staging. The four distinct acts work as a whole, with threads and themes in each tying them together, building momentum towards an eery final scene, a dance of death, where the women slow dance with dummy soldiers to the cabaret-style croons of the army doctor.
But let's go back to basics. What exactly is a Tassie? It's a cup, of the large, polished trophy kind. It appears early on, the reward for the main character Harry's footballing prowess, and again, loaded with symbolism, in the last act when Harry is home from the war but crippled. And how about those promised pyrotechnics? Warnings about explosions create a (childish, we know) frisson of excitement before entering the theatre, but the reality is pretty brutal, not a party trick but purposefully deafening and relentless. Act Two – set in a ruined monastery were some soldiers are hiding out – closes with a barrage of guns and a huge cannon pointed directly at the audience, which is unnerving to say the least.
Londonist saw this play on a complimentary review ticket. The Silver Tassie plays at the National Theatre until 3 July.