Title: Juno And The Paycock
Author: Sean O’Casey
Director: Howard Davies
Theatre: Lyttleton, National Theatre, Southbank
Major players: Ciaran Hinds, Sinead Cusack
Out of five? 4
Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey made his name in the 1920s with a trio of plays set in Dublin tenements during the Easter rising of 1916. The Shadow Of A Gunman, Juno And The Paycock and The Plough And The Stars all premiered at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, but they are infrequently performed in the UK, despite having found their way onto the A Level English syllabus.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that the National Theatre and the Abbey have got together for a co-production of the best of the three – Juno And The Paycock – currently playing in the Lyttleton. Juno Boyle (Sinead Cusack) despairs of her loveable waster of a husband, Jack (Ciaran Hinds) but somehow keeps the family together on a shoestring. And, while their tenement room, and Jack’s dreams, shield them artificially from the violence of the outside world, son Johnny’s (Ronan Raftery) visible wounds of his involvement in the uprising mean it’s never far away. Tragedy initially strikes at arms’ length, with the murder of a neighbour’s son, but when it arrives at the Boyle’s doorstep, Juno has to decide where her loyalties lie.
The play has two great strengths: terrific central characters (Juno, Jack and his drinking buddy, Joxer) and its sense of the tragi-comic, juxstaposing scenes of high comedy with deep tragedy, as exemplified in the final two scenes. Firstly we see a shattered Juno coming to terms with the reality of the triple blow dealt to her family and leaving for good. Then Jack and Joxer, both roaring drunk, stumble into the empty room, completely oblivious of what has taken place. At this point, Jack’s charm dries up: we no longer laugh at him, but see him for what he really is.
Director Howard Davies is well served by his three main players, particularly Ciaran Hinds as Captain Jack, a workshy drunk who lives in a fantasy world and cannot face reality, even when it stares him in the face. He’s well matched by Risteard Cooper as Joxer Daly, a chancer and scrounger with a decidedly sinister undertone. Sinead Cusack’s Juno was a touch too shrill during the first half of the performance, but she came into her own during the second, darker half of the play and her plea to the Virgin Mary, using the exact words of her grieving neighbour, was heartbreaking.
I do wonder if the Lyttleton was the right venue. Juno And The Paycock takes place in one room: we never see the outside world – the closest we come to it is a visit from a pair of what are described as “irregulars” – so it is, essentially, an intimate portrait of tenement life. The stage is so huge, the cast were dwarfed and I found myself wishing for a smaller theatre, reinforcing the feeling of being protected from the outside world. At the same time, the set design seemed to forget that the family lived in real poverty, at times looking more shabby chic than the downright shabby it needed to be.
Nonetheless, this is a welcome revival of a play – and playwright – too long absent from the British stage. O’Casey’s later works never quite lived up to Juno and its two companion pieces, so if you go to this production, you’re probably seeing his work at its best.