Summer Solstice

Midsummer’s day in the Northern Hemisphere brings perfect summer weather, but a disappointing war play from an Irishman.


It’s the longest day of the year – the Summer Solstice, in pagan terms, when druids gather to wave burnt sage around the rocks at Stonehenge, and we lesser mortals start to count the slow contraction of the evenings as we move towards midsummer and the autumn.

No druidical frolicking for me tonight – I’m off to see a revival of Sean O’Casey’s WWI play The Silver Tassie at the National. It’s a gorgeous night on the South Bank – warm and sunny with golden evening light that feels more like Spain or Italy than cloudy-with-a-chance-of-rain England. The Queen’s Walk is swarming with people – “They’re coming in droves!”, my mother once said, agape at all the people in one place.

As I wait for Tim, a young couple dance together to Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares For Me, which comes out of a tiny dilapidated 1980s tape deck one of them has placed nearby. They’re lean and whippet thin with veiny muscled arms – dance students, probably, or buskers, though there’s no upturned bowler hat anywhere around for coins. It’s been ages since I’ve been dancing.

The Silver Tassie is a strange experience – an experimental and not entirely successful play, given the full National Theatre treatment with elaborate set design, studious performances and some big-assed explosions. It was O’Casey’s first work after his trilogy of highly successful plays (The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars) for which he’s still known. William Butler Yeats, the then-director of the Abbey Theatre, rejected it for performance, claiming that O’Casey was making light of the war and didn’t properly understand human suffering like veterans did. O’Casey was incensed and went to the newspapers, claiming that he’d been betrayed by the same theatre that his plays had bankrolled. The play was eventually performed in England, where it was a mixed success.

On the strength of the National production, I’d say Yeats had a point. O’Casey was keen to move away from spit-and-potatoes naturalism and embrace a more expressionist style. The result is a violent lurch from naturalism into surrealism and back again that doesn’t quite work.

The first act is standard O’Casey – a melodrama set in a tenement flat, featuring wisecracking drunk men, hard-working beleaguered women, and enough blarney to choke a leprechaun. The third and fourth acts show the devastation on the community after the war: strapping young men come back crippled and former alpha males get struck down with gas blindness, women betray their allegiances and mothers weep. It’s nicely played but fairly unremarkable fare.

The play is split in half – or elevated, depending on your point of view – by a bizarre second half, set in makeshift army quarters in rural France, just before the regiment are about to go into the trenches. Most of the dialogue is sung in the manner of a sea ditty, and the characters move as if in a trance. O’Casey presumably wanted to capture the madness and surrealism of life in a war zone. It doesn’t quite work, largely because we haven’t established enough of a relationship with the characters (only two of whom featured in the first act) to care enough. The National’s staging feels both bombastic and strangely defensive – as if they felt the need to sandpaper over the faults in the play with a big boys’  display of fireworks. Shells explode and cannons are wheeled on and walls crumble most impressively, but there’s no narrative seam to draw together the complex emotional terrain covered.

In the interval, largely to take our minds of our disappointment, Tim talks about reading Proust for the first time (he’s read it twice now, apparently). Though he’s more of an Anthony Powell man, he recommends Proust (which he persists, charmingly, in pronouncing Prow-st), and encourages me to persevere with the reading project.

After the disappointments of the theatre, we walk from the South Bank to the trains at Vauxhall. It’s a lovely evening: crowds and buskers and food stalls are still buzzing on the embankment around the London Eye, and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament look especially gorgeous lit up against the blue-black night sky.

As we near Vauxhall, we see hordes of young people, dressed in 80s-era skinny jeans, stone-washed tank tops and big Dynasty hair that Tim and I are old enough to remember from the first time around. Clubland is just opening for the evening, though it’s the end of mine. It’s off to bed with a cup of apple tea for this little brown hen.


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