Having developed an aversion to Sean O’Casey’s three most famous plays during schooldays, I initially decided to give this a miss. However, generally positive reviews led to a change of heart and a decision to catch Howard Davies’ production of this rarely performed O’Casey play late in its run. There has been no shortage of Irish drama on the London stage in the last couple of years and, when the long and unmemorable first scene of this play settles into the familiar pattern of a group of jocular Irish eccentrics bantering aimlessly, it induces a deep sigh of “here we go again”. And then, before we realise that the scene has ended, a series of loud and blinding explosions shatters the serenity abruptly. When the smoke clears, we see the ruins of an old abbey and we are now in the middle of a World War I battle zone for an extraordinary and surreal second scene which depicts the horrors of war, mostly through verse, song and stark visual images. After the interval, it is back to Ireland to see lives that have been changed irrevocably or wrecked. No complaints here about the use of the wide Lyttelton stage – the sets and the staging are magnificent. There are strong performances too, most notably from Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy as a sort of Irish Laurel and Hardy, Ronan Raftery as a star footballer who becomes paralysed in battle and Judith Roddy as a religious zealot who blossoms out. Looked at as a drama, there is an uneasy mix of comedy and tragedy and the play is too episodic, lacking a strong enough central narrative thread. However, judged as a work of literature, much of it is simply superb, written more like an epic poem than a play, it is a moving elegy on the ravages of war and its cost to humanity.
Performance date: 24 June 2014