By David Hennessy
Ronan Raftery, known from Moone Boy, plays Harry Heegan who leads his football team to victory before he grabs his kit and heads for the World War One trenches where a nightmare world awaits. Months later, Harry returns, a cripple at the football club party. Everyone but the shattered war veterans dances and forgets.
This is the theme of O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie. Yes, it deals with the cruelty of war but also the cruelty that those lucky enough to make it home find on their arrival. Ronan tells The Irish World: “It’s the cruelties of day to day life having come back from war with quite a severe injury and emotional damage and the people around you, the people who love you and who you love, not being able to deal with it.
“It’s a lot better nowadays but back then after World War One, people just didn’t have the support to deal with it like we might have now so it’s about his frustration with dealing with that and being left behind. The rest of the world moves on on such a positive note after the war ends or after any war ends and these young men are left with these horrendous injuries and horrendous emotional scars and don’t really know how to deal with it.”
In modern times, we are aware of post-traumatic stress disorder and someone like Harry would receive counselling but back then the attitude was: “’Get on with your life’, yeah. It’s a harsh way to treat people who have been living in a puddle of mud for four years and watching people die every day and all those other awful things they had to endure.
“This play is a play that has fascinated me for quite a long time. I read it when I was in drama school and didn’t know what to make of it, didn’t understand it at all and read it a few more times and absolutely fell in love with it, with the strangeness of it and the range of emotions in Harry is very intriguing, very exciting for any actor: To go from such highs to such lows and experience such pain and anger and vitriol, I thought it would be a lot of fun.”
Ronan’s research for the role took him to Woolwich army barracks where he was able to pick up invaluable knowledge of army life: “It was wonderful. We were there specifically to deal with one of the big guns they have because we have an eighteen pound gun onstage and we wheel it out and have to learn how to load it so we wanted to see that done by professionals.
“From a practical point of view that’s why we were there but also, it was fantastic to talk to them about how they talk to each other and how they keep up each other’s morale and how they would react around different officers of different ranks. They could be laughing and joking with each other and having a good time and then when the sergeant major walked over, they would all straighten up and it was really interesting to see that actually happening. They weren’t doing that for us, it’s obviously how it’s run when they’re on base. It’s very strict.”
Did Ronan and his fellow actors get an insight into the effects of war from people who have experienced it? “The soldiers we were talking to were very young, I don’t think they had been over to Afghanistan or Iraq and we weren’t there with that mandate so we were going to let them bring that up and talk about if they wanted to but I certainly didn’t feel comfortable prying into that. They talked generally about what life is like when you’re away from home but I didn’t press them on details about that. If they’re not going to be forthcoming with it, that’s their prerogative.”
The play’s timing seems very apt with the President Michael D Higgins coming to the UK in the same month to lay a wreath for the unknown warrior. Ronan performed for the President when he attended a performance of Juno and the Paycock at The Abbey in a production that also came to the National and with the same director, Howard Davies, as this current O’Casey production. Although it is a shame that his visit comes before the play’s run, Ronan extends the invite: “He’s more than welcome. I’ll ring him. I’ll send him a text.”
Like Aidan McArdle, Ronan has also acted with Mr Selfridge star Aisling Loftus on Irish film, Death of a Superhero. His parents in that were played by Sharon Horgan and Michael McElhatton: “That was my first time on a film set or in front of a camera really so it’s amazing to have those kind of actors. Sharon will be in season three of Moone Boy as well.”
Ronan is also familiar with Aidan’s cousin Steve Coogan from his involvement in Moone Boy: “Oh yeah, I forgot about that (Aidan and Steve being cousins). I haven’t even talked to him about that.
“Baby Cow is the producer and Steve is the exec of that so we do see him, he pops on set and we’ve gone for a couple of pints and had a chat about it all. He’s wonderful.”
The Silver Tassie runs from April 15 to May 21 at The National Theatre, London. For more information and to book, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or call 020 7452 3000.