‘Searing, sobering, devastating and beautiful….’


Sinead Cusack as Juno

Juno and the Paycock – National Theatre, London, NT/ Abbey Theatre Dublin co-production

Perhaps the oddest thing about Juno and the Paycock is the title. ‘Juno’ is the woman at the centre of this deeply moving, poignant and tragic drama, a woman of grit and humour, determination, longsuffering patience and love. The ‘Paycock’ is her husband – it is the Dublin pronunciation of ‘peacock’, for despite his charm, he is an ineffectual drunkard, wasting his life on foolish dreams. Both tragic and comic, this unmissable play has only two weeks more of performances remaining. It’s a chance not to be missed.

Sean O’Casey is today best known for his Dublin Trilogy – The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars – which all reflect the turbulent politics of Ireland as it moved in status from British outpost to Free State. O’Casey was himself an early believer in Irish Nationalism and also a committed Socialist. Although born to a relatively well off family, the early death of his father left the family destitute, and he was forced as a child to move through a succession of homes.  A Protestant by birth, O’Casey changed his name from John to its Gaelic equivalent – Sean – and became involved in the armed uprising of Easter 1916.

Nonetheless, O’Casey’s first dabblings in drama in the 1890s were comic: with his brother, he performed plays by an earlier Irish playwright, Dion Boucicault. But it was not until 1923 that O’Casey’s first play was performed at the Abbey Theatre. There is, indeed, a sense of comedy in Juno and the Paycock and often, even, a sense of the absurd, perhaps almost pre-empting much twentieth century drama and the work of Samuel Beckett.

Howard Davies’s production captures perfectly the dry humour of the play’s opening as Juno Boyle mocks her husband’s ineffectual attempts at finding work. Although only having been at sea once, Jack Boyle dreams of being a sea captain. There are visual gags, too – particularly involving a plate of sausages (actually cooked on stage) – and much humour at Juno and her husband’s attempts to court favour from their perceived social superiors. There is a gentle sense of farce, too, and some superb comic timing, particularly in Act 2 from risqué neighbour Mrs Madigan (Janet Moran).

Yet the play is not merely a comedy. From the start we are aware of a play which was contemporary with its times. Mary Boyle is on strike for a chance of better wages whilst her brother Johnny is unable to work, having lost an arm and his hip having been crushed in the violence of the Easter Rising. Mary’s first lover, Jerry Devine, is active in the trade union movement. It is a city, too, of inequality for women – witness the shameful treatment of (the ironically named) Mary when she is found to be pregnant. This is Dublin almost without hope, perhaps save for the resilience and humour of her poorest citizens.

But as the play progresses, we become aware of even darker undertones and the violence which tears Dublin apart – and whilst the suffering of the Boyles almost starts to represent much of what Ireland has endured, this is definitely not Nationalist propaganda, for by the end, it is, above all, a compelling, terrible and personal tragedy – you are left with a sense of real people with real emotions, suffering.

And so, again, I have found myself disagreeing with Lyn Gardner of The Guardian who dismissed the Dublin run of this production as ‘not quite squalid enough’ in her typically patronising tone. But the Sunday Independent  (an Irish newspaper), got it just right: this production is ‘searing, sobering, devastating and beautiful’. It’s hard to put it any better.

Visually, Bob Crowley’s design is beautifully observed. The play is set in a single, sparsely furnished room in a Dublin tenement, in a building that was once grand and even noble, but has now deteriorated to the depths of grinding poverty. The high ceiling almost suggests the home of an aristocrat – but the plaster is cracked and the walls covered in mildew. The broken windows are patched up with newspapers; some are still lacking repair, and clearly bullets have gone through them in places. In the far corner, we see a bed, hemmed in by the shabbiest curtains, and, opposite, a range smokes. James Farncombe’s lighting design, meanwhile, sensitively captures the mood of the piece, at some points almost transfiguring the squalor of the tenement into something surreal.

Jack Boyle/ Paycock (Ciaran Hinds) and his neighbour Jerry Devine (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) have been criticised in The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian for their vaudeville performances. Such criticism seems to miss the point: beneath the bravado – they were often deployed as comic foils – they seemed to be ultimately selfish when compared with the quiet fortitude of Juno and her daughter Mary. By the final scene, when Jack enters, stumbling across the stage in an alcoholic stupor, we see him for what he truly is: ignorant, brutal, loveless, selfish.

Of particular note was the performance of Ronan Raftery who played Johnny Boyle, in a way which refused to let him seem either hero or victim – indeed, if anything came across, it was the flawed nature of a complex character, both driven by ideals and yet undercut by selfishness and an inability to forgive. Like the other men of the play, his horrific treatment of women, not least his own sister, came across most powerfully. Clare Dunne captured Mary Boyle’s innocence and vulnerability most sympathetically.

Sinead Cusack as Juno Boyle was perfectly cast, with a time-worn look and yet a deep sense of fortitude throughout. Juno’s character has been linked to O’Casey’s own mother, and the play even described as his love letter to her. Whatever, she is unquestionably the play’s strength and the one with whom we as an audience sympathise most. Despite the earlier humour of the play, in which Cusack’s performance matched that of Ciaran Hinds, as the violence escalates and her daughter Mary is found to be pregnant, it was Juno’s gut-wrenching soliloquy which held the audience captive:

Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin’ son was riddled with bullets? Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murdherin’ hate, an’ give us Thine own eternal love!

In this play, there is no answer to such prayers. And therein lies the tragedy of it all. O’Casey lost his faith as a young man and a sense of spiritual emptiness overwhelms this play. Despite the outward trappings of the Catholic church, save for the sacrificial love of Juno and her devotion to her children, O’Casey presents a meaningless world but one in which Juno Boyle – determined, resilient – longs desperately for something better.

This was a forcefully and sensitively acted piece with a strong supporting cast.  (A word to the English – following the Dublin accents can, for the first ten minutes, be difficult but stick with it.) It was well received by the audience: the applause for Sinead Cusack was almost rapturous.

Only a handful of performances remain. Don’t miss them. This really is the sort of play which sticks with you for days afterwards, leaving you with all the contradictory feelings which great drama evokes: laughter, tragedy, sorrow, anger, regret, despair.

YouTube video: Theatre National Theatre production of Juno and the Paycock