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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Ph: Catherine Ashmore

This is an extraordinary piece of theatre – savagely funny, grim and horrifying, naturalism colliding violently with grotesque, Expressionist imagery of an unfathomable nightmare. Sean O’Casey’s play is startling. Its stylistic jolts famously led WB Yeats to reject it as a candidate for production at the Abbey Theatre in 1928, on the grounds that its author had never experienced fighting in the trenches and had represented it inauthentically. But in this masterly production by Howard Davies, the piece’s dislocations feel just right: They somehow convey the chaos of war, and specifically the Great War, with its absurdities, obscenities and hideous reversals of fortune. It has a crazed, fractured quality, like the shattered memories of a shell-shocked Tommy – and it is all the more affecting for that.
It begins in the familiar O’Casey territory of a Dublin tenement. Two boozy old philosopher-soaks are musing on local happenings, gossip about a ruckus presaging the all-consuming violence to come. Pious Susie Monican (Judith Roddy) scolds them and assures them, skipping up a step, that they are sure to go to Hell. Mrs Foran (Aoife McMahon) slings a steak on the stove for the husband she hates, seasoning it with spit and a sprinkling of cigarette ash. She’s in a capering good mood, because her thuggish spouse Teddy (Aidan Kelly) is due to return to the Front that night – though not before, in an irrational rage, he’s threatened her with a hatchet and smashed every piece of crockery the couple possesses. Also bound for the fighting is young Harry Heegan (Ronan Raftery), virile, poetic, handsome, and fresh from winning the play’s titular silver cup for a football match. After a song, an embrace from his mother, a kiss from his fiancée Jessie and a draught of red wine from the cup, this local hero is on his way. And, in a deafening battery of bomb blasts and artillery fire, we’re transported to a semi-obliterated French monastery. Music – sometimes dirge-like, sometimes a desperate prayer, or even flavoured with defiant, cockeyed comedy – takes over from spoken language. The soldiers sing of “falling pissing rain and whistling wind,” of valleys of bones, of a God who seems to have become blind, deaf and pitiless. Bodies on stretchers haul themselves up, twitching, to sing to the heavens of “Man’s wonderful work.” A hymn to the huge gun “in which we put our trust” culminates as it is turned, terrifyingly, on the audience.
And yet the final act is perhaps still more devastating, as we see Harry in hospital, “dead from the belly down,” his legs useless. His life has become a sick joke: the friend who saved him from death has been awarded the Victoria Cross and has won the affections of Jessie, for both of which Harry curses him. Susie, now a nurse, is pursued around Harry’s bed by a priapic surgeon, while Teddy, blinded in action, is totally dependent on the wife he once abused.
Vicki Mortimer’s sets, in which mouldy walls crumble and plaster religious icons loom, are eerily lit and licked with fire and smoke by Neil Austin. And in Davies’ riveting production, the stage is as crammed with disturbing detail as a Hieronymous Bosch canvas. It’s a restless, fevered vision of hell: sprawling, horrific and unforgettable.


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