“This play is in our DNA,” Sinéad Cusack told RTE radio presenter, Pat Kenny, on Monday morning, to which he reported a colleague’s only half-joking comment that on the opening night, half of the audience at the Abbey Theatre had already been in the play, and the other half thought they had written it. Certainly, this production feels like a classic come home, and is treated with the assiduous care and fond reverence that that inspires.
Juno and the Paycock was first performed on the (old) Abbey stage in 1924, only two years after the troubled period in which the play was set. The second in O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy, it’s set during the Irish Civil War, and explores the fortunes of an impoverished Dublin family comprised of the overworked matriarch, Juno, her work-shy ‘paycock’ husband, Captain Boyle, their daughter Mary (who reads Ibsen and reaches for a better life with the English solicitor Mr Bentham) and their Republican son Johnny, injured in the Easter Rising and with the Irregulars now after him. The door of their one-room home in a tenement building of long-faded Georgian grandeur is constantly being flung open by neighbours who borrow, lend, comment, drink, entertain and enjoy the Boyles’ hospitality, even when there’s nothing to offer. But neighbourly transactions are always underlined by a survival instinct, an eye to an opportunity, an insistent knack for self-preservation that alienates, commodifies, and ultimately allows the Boyles to see themselves as different, transformed into ‘better’ people when good fortune comes their way. (In this way it’s deeply reminiscent of early Jacobean city comedy.) Only strangers knock at the tenement door, but after the Boyles get news of a windfall in the shape of an inheritance from a distant relation, the knocking increases, and it proves not the strangers but the old familiars who bring threat.
A joint production by the National Theatre and the Abbey, it certainly showcases Irish theatrical talent. Sinéad Cusack is mesmerising as the extraordinary Juno, while Ciarán Hinds’s Captain Boyle struts, bellows and hams about as he seeks to escape work and his wife with is drinking ‘butty’, Joxer Daly, a gloriously mercurial Risteárd Cooper, whose comic timing serves. Clare Dunne plays the ambitious Mary with more delicacy and sympathy than that part sometimes receives. The play’s many switches from the comic to the terrible, its use of music and song, are ably handled, and when in the final scene the light spills translucently across the bare boards of Bob Crowley’s beautiful set (almost ‘distressed’ deco, at this stage), turning its remaining inhabitants into pale, pinched figures, shadows of their merry-making selves in the singing scenes earlier in the play, one can’t help fearing what this new dawn will hold.
It’s probably inevitable that it will be framed as a play for our present time, with its searing analysis of poverty, its sorry representation of the Boyles’s boom-to-bust behaviour, its indictment of the Catholic church and other sources of authority, among them nationalist ideology and the English ‘scholar’ Bentham. There are plenty of contemporary analogies for the play’s famous ‘state o’chassis’: one prescient moment that stuck with me was seeing how the betrayal by Captain Boyle’s good-time friend, Joxer, in the final scene is financially and materially almost spurious but symbolically vicious.
But ultimately, I’m not sure that this production wants to go to all the difficult places O’Casey invites us to. The recorded music ushering the Acts in and out was a little manipulative, even mawkish for my tastes, particularly the breathy ‘Celtic’ melodies – a missed opportunity, given the importance of song in the play itself. And the play’s own toughest critiques are softened by the over-riding sense that this is a classic in a safe pair of hands, maybe even an example of culture in the service of ‘Brand Ireland’ that Irish artists have been exhorted to produce as part of the programme for economic recovery. For all that, it’s an excellent realization of a play that has, perhaps, even more to say to us than this particular production allows.