Juno and the Paycock – review
Having no previous knowledge of Sean O’Casey’s work I saw Juno with no set expectations. Many people in the audience were aware of the play from studying it at school or college, where it sits firmly on the Irish curriculum and is heralded as one of the most significant plays in the Irish theatre canon. This acclaim seems altogether justified considering the themes which it explores and the context surrounding the work. Written in 1924 where it was originally performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the drama centres on a family struggling to survive in a Dublin tenement. Whilst the matriarchal Juno works to support the household, her daughter Mary is on strike and her son Johnny is unable to work after loosing his arm in the War of Independence. Her husband ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle resists work, looming as a Falstaff-ian figure causing nuisance with his lay-about friend Joxer Daly. As the family come into an inheritance they feel their lives have been changed and begin to live above their means. Their joy is short lived in the third act as Juno takes charge watching her family in ruins.
This current production at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre is a joint creation with the Abbey Theatre Dublin who have brought this classic play to a modern audience. Howard Davies directs the play, drawing out the Miller-esque qualities that the play invokes. Despite being written some years before ‘All My Sons’ or ‘A View from the Bridge’, O’Casey’s play works in much the same way as a Miller tragedy, featuring a family on the brink of disaster embedded in a rich context that appears only offstage yet is the driving force of the drama. To those with little knowledge of Irish history, some of the significant events may be lost, but Davies’ clear production keeps the events outside the boundaries of the family home, albeit present through a large translucent window. Events enter the domestic setting when necessary – most significantly as the IRA burst in to punish Johnny Boyle for his actions in the war. Davies creates and maintains an open domestic space with a central door that keeps slamming as a motif throughout, continually stripped after a brief period of affluence, leaving the physical space empty by Juno’s departure.
Bob Crowley’s design suits the production perfectly with enough detail to give a sense of place, whilst remaining sparse enough to capture the disparate sense of family that presides over each act. The piece is lit by James Farncombe as to enhance the outside space, acting as the window onto the outside world, subtlety bringing the context upon the family at key moments. Impressive performances feature throughout, in particular Sinéad Cusack in the title role, barley leaving the stage and delivering a commanding performance as head of the family. She works effortlessly with various props to create a compelling performance, but is never over the top or histrionic. Like her character, she takes the events in her stride, giving courage to the dialogue and knowing exactly when to find comedy in the words. The play itself takes some time to warm up, but this investment is recouped by the final act, as the world that has been so well set up comes crashing around the character’s heads. Ciarán Hinds’s performance as Jack Boyle reminds a modern audience of Mark Rylance’s Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jerusalem, as he becomes the tragic hero left alone to finally fend for himself, left raw and exposed against an empty stage.
Whilst the play itself suffers from a stunted beginning, this production draws out all that is good with O’Casey’s work, showing an English audience the importance of this text within the overall context of Modern Drama over the past century. Contemporary tones are resonant bringing life to the piece that is as fresh and relevant today as almost 100 years ago.