Juno and the Paycock – Lyttleton, National Theatre, London
I had no previous knowledge of Sean O’Casey’s work and so went to see this production with no set expectations.
The play revolves around the Boyles, a family on the brink of disaster, living in a shabby Georgian tenement in Dublin in the 1920s.
Juno (Sinead Cusack) is the typical Irish catholic matriarch, her husband is the heavy drinking, work-shy Jack (Ciarán Hinds), their son Johnny (Ronan Raftery) lost an arm in the civil war and their daughter Mary (Clare Dunne) is on strike.
Jack struts around convincingly, moaning about the current state of affairs and going to the pub with his mate, the typical Oirish Joxer Daly (an excellent Risteárd Cooper) returning to an ear-bashing from his wife as she insists on brewing endless cups of tea.
Then the plot develops as the family learn that they are in line for an inheritance and their fortunes seem to be on the up.
The family is delighted as they appear to rise out of poverty as they refurbish the tenement using funds borrowed from friends and neighbours with a promise to repay them when the money comes through.
However, the whole production has a definite shadow cast over it so you know this positivity won’t last long, as the promise of money causes them to live above their means.
Of course, by the end of the play, the tone becomes dark and dramatic, the money fails to arrive and all of their possessions are reclaimed by the suppliers, things also take a turn for the worse when Mary becomes pregnant out of wedlock and Johnny is kidnapped and murdered by the IRA.
Whilst the play itself suffers from a stunted beginning, the tone is highly resonant, as fresh and relevant today as it must have been almost 100 years ago.
People with a limited knowledge of Irish history may have been lost with some of the significant events within the play, but in this clear production the events are kept outside the family home, only presented to the audience by clever lighting through the large Georgian windows. These events only enter the domestic setting when necessary to the plot, in particular when the IRA burst in and punish Johnny Boyle for his actions during the war.
The play itself actually takes some time to warm up, but picks up by the final act, as the world that has been so well set up comes crashing around the character’s heads.
There are impressive performances throughout. Sinéad Cusack in the title role, only leaves the stage for limited periods, delivering a commanding performance as the head of the family, providing courage and comedy to the dialogue.
Ciarán Hinds’ performance as Jack Boyle progresses from comedic but unsympathetic to becoming an almost tragic hero left alone to finally fend for himself, raw and exposed on an empty stage.
However it was the lesser role of Johnny played by Ronan Raftery that became the heart of the play. He spends most of the time on stage in a state of despair, his fear and pain are apparent, he spends most of the play sitting off to the side, or cowering in a corner, yet it was impossible to take your eyes off him.
Bob Crowley’s design suits the production perfectly with details of decrepit grey walls, a high ceiling and minimal furniture, all creating an open domestic space with a door that keeps slamming, leaving the physical space empty each time Juno leaves the stage.
The lighting by James Farncombe enhances the outside space, as the window to the outside world, subtlety brings the family’s situation into context at key moments.
This is a play about the tragedy of war and it’s effects on families, and also the ways in which women hold the home together.
There is also a sense of it being an extended metaphor for Ireland’s political history, the family being happy and free when financially independent, but when it was withdrawn they were downtrodden and miserable.
With a strong modern, relevant feel towards the current economic situation, it also feels like it’s providing a life lesson: living on credit catches up with you in the end.
I did enjoy this play, the beginning is very slow, it takes a while for the plot to really kick in, but the acting is impressive so if you can stick with it I do think it’s worth it.