Sean O’Casey himself described his searing 1928 anti-war drama as not a “good play” but “a remarkable one”. It’s hard to disagree with him. This is not a good play: it’s too long and lumbering, uneven in quality and peopled with underwritten characters. But it is remarkable and Howard Davies’s magnificent new production seizes on what makes it so: the devastating use of theatrical style to express the waking nightmare of the first world war. Strange, jagged, disconcerting, this staging not only manages the lurch into madness that the war brings for the soldiers, but also the disjointed normality that follows.
The silver cup of the title becomes emblematic of the vigorous, uncomplicated life that young Harry Heegan lives before war intervenes. In the first act, his family and neighbours wait anxiously for him to return from a Gaelic football match. He finally does so in triumph, borne aloft by his team mates, brandishing the precious trophy. By the end of the play Harry is a pale shell of a man, paralysed from the waist down, consumed with bitterness as his former fiancée leaves him for an able-bodied colleague. He finally dashes the cup to the ground in despair.
What’s astonishing, though, is the way O’Casey tells this story. He opens with what you might expect: a detailed, comic, naturalistic portrait of life in a Dublin tenement, where a couple of old wastrels (Simon and Sylvester) drink and blether, while the women folk bustle about them. But the war blasts normality out of sight. The second act, conducted in a bombed-out church near the front (brilliantly designed by Vicki Mortimer and delivered by Davies), is a splintered, surreal mix of music hall songs, satirical portraits of officers, wild Biblical utterances and terrifying explosions. It’s a sort of black oratorio, seesawing from flippancy to terror.
Naturalism returns with the subsequent acts, set in a hospital and at the football club. But the staging feels almost hallucinatory, hinting at the dislocation Harry experiences as life carries on around him.
Leading a terrific ensemble, Ronan Raftery, bravely, makes post-trauma Harry a bleakly bitter character, embarrassing to deal with, easier to shun. This is a splintered, difficult and sometimes tedious play, but it’s also charged with anger for the dead and damaged. This epic staging does its anguished rage justice.