Juno and the Paycock

Seán O'Casey
An Abbey Theatre and National Theatre of Great Britain co-production
Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Juno and the Paycock production photo

Howard Davies, prolific interpreter of Russian plays at the National Theatre London, now turns his attention to Ireland in this first ever co-production with the Abbey Theatre Dublin, where Seán O'Casey had his state of the nation trilogy of plays, Juno and the Paycock the middle of the three, premiered in the 1920s. This is the Abbey's 45th production of the play.

Like Maxim Gorky, Seán O'Casey knew the poverty and degradation of life lived in overcrowded tenement flats first hand, the effect and cost of the civil war on ordinary people. Like Gorky, O'Casey came up the hard way, teaching himself to read and write at the age of thirteen, taking any job he could.

Sympathetic to working class people's plight, he wrote from the heart as well as the head about the injured and the insulted, man's inhumanity to man, and their superstitions. 'Isn't all religions curious - if they weren't you wouldn't get anyone to believe in them'.

It is the women who suffer and endure. 'Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets?' 'Take away this murdherin' hate, an' give us Thine own eternal love!' 'But what can God do against the stupidity of man?' A play about betrayal on every level and every scale, and superhuman resilience, Juno and the Paycock is a tragedy, laced with insightful humour.

Juno reigns over a penniless madhouse drowning in a sea of troubles, personal and national. Her husband, phoney Captain Jack Boyle, is a fantasist and a work-shy drinker whose legs pain him every time a job is mentioned. Her son Johnny has lost an arm 'for Ireland' and skulks in fear in his room, afraid of the inevitable retribution for betraying his best friend out of cowardice. Only daughter Mary has a job, but she's on strike on principle. Who will put food on the table?

Things look up when Mary's new young man Mr Bentham (Nick Lee) comes with good news - of an inheritance. But life is cruel and Mary Mother of God lets them down. A votive candle burns throughout under her icon centre stage, till the blast of wind from the door by removal men blows it out. Johnny is petrified, seeing visions of his dead friend.

The newly bought furniture is taken away - a brief moment of joy in their meagre lives - and so is Johnny at gunpoint. Bentham flees Ireland, abandoning Mary with child. He has betrayed her trust. Bringer of good news, he is the instigator of bad.

The family honour besmirched, father and brother reject Mary, but worst of all so does trade unionist good man Jerry Devine (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) who professes undying love for her until he learns of her plight. Where is the humanity he preaches? Hollow as the other men. 'Is there not a middling honest man in the world?' The baby may have no father, but two mothers will be a better bet for its future.

Jack Boyle drinks away the last penny with his drinking pal Joxer Daly, a gem of a role, which Risteárd Cooper pulls off with obliging comic vim, his favourite refrain 'a darlin', a daarlin' !' whatever. The comedy double act arrives at the empty flat not knowing all are gone. Dead drunk and indifferent to the affairs of men and the world

The lower depths, abject poverty in squalid conditions, little respect for education, though Mary is reading Ibsen, constant gunfire outside, and inside songs and drink to shut out the Troubles - an indictment of Ireland if ever there was one. 'Th' whole worl's in a terrible state o' chassis.' Scar tissue on the soul of Ireland, as it is on Juno's.

A grand high-ceilinged room divided by clumsy partitions - this could be a post-revolution Russian kommunalka. Peeling grey walls, windows with curtains eaten away till they are pelmets, bare floorboards, black stove, bed behind a curtain. Bob Crowley's design, a genre painting, dwarfs its residents as they rattle about its empty space.

Sinéad Cusack, a skinny Mother Hubbard, grey hair, long skirt, cardigan held tight across her concave chest, clumps about in heavy boots, but is not yet inhabiting the role fully, the sparkle in her eye not yet doused by tragedy. Plenty of time for that, as the production moves to London in November through to early January.

Ciarán Hinds and Risteárd Cooper, Captain Boyle and Joxer, are best when together, a Flanagan and Allen duo, spouting nonsense, posturing, preening, and reeling in drunken dance. Their singing, and Juno's with Mary, drew applause from the audience.

Janet Moran plays self-righteous Mrs Maisie Madigan, another one who likes a tipple, with conviction. But it was the quieter roles of Mary (Clare Dunne) and Johnny (Ronan Raferty), which captured my attention. Good to share it with an Irish audience on home turf.

"Juno and the Paycock" runs until 5th November 2011

Philip Fisher reviewed this production on its transfer to the National Theatre

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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