This Abbey co-production with Southbank’s National Theatre of Sean O’Casey’s 1924 classic is a star-studded flagship show for this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival.
Ciaran Hinds and Risteard Cooper are fantastic as O’Casey’s trademark self-deluding male comedy double-act. Hinds is the self-proclaimed nautical veteran ‘Captain’ Boyle, a work-shy layabout who once crewed a boat to Liverpool and now infuriates his long-suffering wife Juno (Sinead Cusack) by continually carousing with ne’er-do-well neighbour Joxer (Cooper) and pleading mysterious pains in his legs whenever the prospect of a job appears. Tony-winning designer Bob Crowley has created a startlingly realistic decaying tenement set, with its own decrepit roof, and rooms partially glimpsed thru open doors as well as an expansive window-ledge just visible off-stage. Director Howard Davies exploits this grimy set with rain sound effects, and increasingly bleak lighting and sparse furnishing, to heighten O’Casey’s successive disillusioning of the audience as he skewers reverence for institutions including the Church, the IRA, and Trade Unions.
Davies though also handles the slapstick elements of the play better than any previous production I’ve ever seen. A moustachioed Hinds is fantastic in a role that combines a lot of hilariously self-deceiving bombast with scary moments of self-righteous fury. He makes his eyes bulge in terror at the prospect of being trapped in a job, hesitates infinitely over giving Joxer a sausage for breakfast when he realises with horror it’s bigger than the one he’s already put on his own plate, and excels at the physical business of throwing a reluctant Joxer out the window before desperately trying to hide the evidence of their breakfast when he hears Juno’s steps on the stairs. Cooper is every inch his equal in a performance that likewise mixes wonderful comedy with a harder edge. Joxer is the kind of fair-weather friend who will loyally back up all your most nonsensical poses, especially when you start contradicting yourself, but who revels in your misfortunes behind your back and would literally steal your last coin…
Sinead Cusack anchors the play emotionally as the embattled matriarch battling the equivalent fecklessness of her husband’s irresponsibility, daughter’s Trade Union enthusiasms, and son’s IRA principles. Her affecting displays of grief and empathy are O’Casey’s redemptive hope. I’ve long complained the supporting parts in Juno are mere ciphers, with crippled IRA veteran Johnny Boyle being the worst offender. Clare Dunne as Mary Boyle and Nick Lee (a dead ringer for Cripple of Inishmaan‘s Tadhg Murphy) as Theosophist boyfriend Charlie Bentham milk some laughs, as does Janet Moran’s saucy Masie Madigan, but the supporting players could never prevent this play belonging to the central trio. Juno’s famous exit line offers the stoicism of Chekhov’s Three Sisters peroration, but O’Casey purposely ends with low comedy instead as the Captain and Joxer stagger back into a now empty room.
It may be over-reaching to see in O’Casey’s presentation of a family in inescapable poverty who are magically granted wealth only to have it cruelly taken away again not just subversion of 1920s audience expectations but also a type of Ireland’s fate in the last 25 years, but it is not over-reaching to say this production demands attendance.
Juno and the Paycock continues its run at the Abbey until November 5th.