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Reviews

11 Nov 2018

The Silver Tassie at the Barbican Hall

‘Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’ The words of George Orwell, expressed in a Tribune article, ‘The Sporting Spirit’, published in 1945.

The Silver Tassie: BBCSO Total Immersion, ‘In Remembrance: World War I’, Barbican Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ashley Riches (Harry) and Louise Alder (Jessie)

Photo credit: Jamie Simonds

 

In recent weeks, there have been so many Armistice centenary events, and commentaries on such commemorations, that the weight of memory, history and collective expectation and responsibility has sometimes felt bewildering or overwhelming. The performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 2000 opera The Silver Tassie - the apex of the ‘Total Immersion’ weekend of performances, screenings and talks inspired by the events of 1914-18 at the Barbican Centre - brought debates about sport and war, violence and religion, love and sexuality, into tense, troubling and heightened theatrical focus. The performance was buffeting and blistering; the musical and emotional punch delivered was knockout; but, just what was being ‘celebrated’ was more equivocal.

As the Guardian’s Senior Sports Editor remarked in the Saturday edition, the centenary of the 1914-18 conflict has seen a veritable ‘blizzard of remembrance’. Barney Ronay was reflecting on the life and achievements of Kent and England cricketer Colin Blythe, who hailed from Deptford in south-east London and, off-season, played violin in concert orchestras around Kent, and whose death - one among half a million men on both sides who were slaughtered in the Battle of Passchendaele, the 101st anniversary of which falls this weekend - was marked in the cricket media and by local people in south-east London this week. Ronay asks, ‘How to grasp this industrialised slaughter? How to remember it in a way that makes any sense?’ One might add a further question: through art? Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera, The Silver Tassie, certainly upholds the continuing argument for and appeal of WW1 as a source of creative inspiration and monument.

Sean O’Casey’s 1928 play on which Amanda Holden’s libretto for Turnage’s opera is based, laments such loss of life - literal and figurative, for many ‘survivors’ were condemned to a living death - in the First World War. The play’s hero, the dynamic star of the local football team, Harry Heegan, leads his fellow sportsmen to victory in the coveted Championship Cup. With the eponymous trophy secured in the cabinet, Harry, the apple of his parents’ eye and worshipped by his girlfriend Jessie, heads off to war, only to return disabled and embittered. Jessie falls in love with Barney who, ironically, has won the VC for saving Harry’s life; Teddy Foran, an abusive husband who lives in a flat above the Heegans, returns from the frontline blinded and dependent upon the wife he has bullied and threatened. Harry and Teddy have to find a way to survive when, in their youth, they are brought to a state of ‘leg-staggering an’ belly-creeping’.

When W.B. Yeats rejected O’Casey’s play for the Abbey Theatre in 1928, he commented that, ‘There is no dominating character, no dominating action, neither psychological unity nor unity of action ...’. In particular, Yeats lamented the contrast between the expressionistic abstraction of Act 2 and the realism of surrounding three Acts - the home-front of the latter being the predominant forum for the unfolding dramatic conflicts. Moreover, the effect of war on the soldiers and the society from which they hailed is uppermost in O’Casey’s play, and everyone - man and woman, church and state, parent and child - is implicated in the horror.

The playwright’s Act 2 chants and songs may have troubled the critical commentators, but they facilitate Turnage, whose operatic adaptation transforms this section of the drama into a grand choral episode delivered from behind the front lines of the Western Front: it is one of the opera’s strongest theatrical statements. The vigorous male voices of the BBC Singers and the animated Finchley Children’s Music Group were poignantly juxtaposed with the passing parade of boy stretcher-bearers. Brindley Sherratt was a sonorous ‘Croucher’, named after those who huddled in the trenches’ and who associates God with destruction, thereby inverting Ezekiel’s vision of the divine, throned chariot.

After an expository Act 1, it’s only really in Acts 3 and 4 of the opera that the human dimensions of the drama assert their grip. And, in the second half of this semi-staged performance there was a terrific balance between collective, communal suffering and individual and personal experience. In its presentation of a caustic cocktail of sex, religion, violence and love, Turnage’s opera reminds me of Britten’s Billy Budd. The role of Susie, the epicentre for the juxtaposition of violent destruction and religion, was terrifically sung by Sally Matthews who displayed power and evenness over a wide vocal range. Harry’s parents were warmly embodied by the discerning Susan Bickley and Mark le Brocq - Sylvester Heegan’s cardigan buttons were veritably popping with pride.

In the communal dance hall in Act 4, a quarrel between Harry and Jessie threatens to wreck the most recent celebrations of a Silver Tassie victory. As Harry, Ashley Riches was brutal and blunt, and paradoxically eloquent, about the effect of his wounds, both physical and emotional. As the inconstant Jessie, Louise Alder sang with characteristic poise but seemed a little under-characterised, and her need to flick briskly through her score weakened the impact of her moment of physical commitment to Alexander Robin Baker’s vehement, vigorous Barney.

Ryan Wigglesworth conducted a vividly colourful and percussive reading of the score, and if at times it felt a little relentless - the singers were subtly amplified but there were a few imbalances - then who am I to complain of a battery of drums and percussive, grating noise. One other thing: though semi-staged effectively and efficiently, Kenneth Richardson’s dramatic presentation seemed - give or take the odd green-and-white striped football scarf - rather Irish-lite, given that Turnage has said, ‘The fundamental thing I was concerned with was the Irishness of the play. Every line is within that Irish tradition.’

That said, there was so much to admire that I’m not entirely sure why I felt a little disconcerted at the close, as the applause echoed rapturously and extendedly, and the individual singers took their bows, joined by stage director Kenneth Richardson, chorus master James Henshaw, and Turnage himself.

I think, though, I wondered exactly what it was that we were applauding. Next month sees the release of Peter Jackson’s film They Shall Not Grow Old, which digitalises archive footage of WW1, following its television screening on Armistice Day on BBC2. The oft repeated misquotation of Laurence Binyon’s poem, ‘For the Fallen’ - ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:’ - seems dispiritedly poignant.

The BBC has recently published on its website an account of survivors’ commemorations in the aftermath of the war : ‘A year after the conflict had ended, villages, towns and cities held parades, church services and observed two minutes’ silence. That was during the day. The evening of 11 November was different. Thousands of people - most of them young - wanted to have fun. “Victory balls” - charity fundraising events involving fancy dress, dancing, singing and copious drinking - were held to cater for this need. […] They celebrated with their comrades and marked the sacrifices of their fellows by living and enjoying their own lives.’

Though such Victory Parties were subsequently criticised, replaced by more sober commemorations, the BBC reports that, ‘One former officer stopped taking part in commemorations, describing them as “too much like attending one’s own funeral”’.

How we commemorate seems no less personal, and political, today.

This performance of The Silver Tassie was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

Claire Seymour

Mark-Anthony Turnage: The Silver Tassie
Harry - Ashley Riches, Susie - Sally Matthews, The Croucher - Brindley Sherratt, Mrs Foran - Claire Booth, Teddy - Marcus Farnsworth, Barney - Alexander Robin Baker, Jessie - Louise Alder, Mres Heegan - Susan Bickley, Sylvester - Mark le Brocq, Dr Maxwell/Staff Officer - Anthony Gregory, Corporal - Benedict Nelson, Finchley Children’s Music Group, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Conductor - Ryan Wigglesworth, Stage director - Kenneth Richardson.
Barbican Hall, London; Saturday 10th November 2018.

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