“Juno and the Paycock.”

By: Sean O’Casey
Featuring: Declan Conlon, Peter Coonan, Ingrid Craigie, Derbhle Crotty, Emmet Kirwan, Brid Ní Neachtain, Caoimhe O’Malley, Karl O’Neill, Terry O’Neill, Mark O’Regan, Marty Rea, Karl Shiels, Jimmy Smallhorne, Fionna Hewitt-Twamley, Fionn Walton
Directed by: Mark O’Rowe
2 March 2016, 14:30
Gate Theatre, Dublin

The last time that I visited Dublin, in 2011, I was fortunate enough to see two theatre productions: God of Carnage at the Gate Theatre, and Raoul at the Abbey. In both cases I was struck by, and envious of, the impressive sets and the über professional, polished performances. Naturally, I was anxious to see at least one play during my 2016 visit to Dublin and I was spoilt for choice. Initially, I was very excited to see David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue at the Abbey Theatre, but due to being preoccupied and scatterbrained as well as underestimating the Dublin population’s theatre attendance, I could not get tickets even for a matinee.

Having resolved to see my third choice (The Plough and the Stars was also sold out), I came to the theatre expecting a classic play influenced by the Naturalism movement and rooted in the social context of the Civil War in Ireland. At the matinee performance, the audience – mainly school children and retired people with (bless their hearts) rustling sweet wrappers – encouraged this expectation. Yet, while Juno and the Paycock did conform to my expectation, it is far more than a museum piece.

Juno and the Paycock is about a struggling Irish family living in Dublin in the early 1920s. The patriarch, Captain Jack Boyle (Declan Conlon) does not seem able to hold a job, which – along with his friendship with the opportunistic Joxer Daly (Marty Rea) – is a source of constant conflict between him and his wife, Juno (Derbhle Crotty). The war has left their son, Johnny (Fionn Walton) maimed, crippled, and bitter. This depressing situation is temporarily relieved when Jack and Juno’s daughter, Mary (Caoimhe O’Malley), introduces them to Charles Bentham (Emmet Kirwan), her soon-to-be fiancé as well as the bearer of good news: Jack Boyle is to inherit a small fortune from a distant relative. The family celebrates this news by living lavishly in anticipation, but nothing comes of the inheritance and, as one last kick in the crotch, Charles leaves Mary in the lurch.

Firstly, I was once again impressed with the substantial and detailed décor, props and costumes. The dim, white light shining through the windows on either side of the set, combined with the grey walls and scant furnishings, immediately establishes a miserable atmosphere intensified by cold, damp weather. The stage area is quite roomy, however, and I did wonder if the tenements of this time was not significantly smaller. I also think that a smaller set might have created a more claustrophobic atmosphere which, in turn, would have fuelled the family’s need to escape their surroundings.

Although it took a while for the performance to fall into rhythm, I was completely drawn into the action by the start of the second act. The acting was convincing throughout, to the point that, in anticipating the outcome of things, the audience members cringe in embarrassment on behalf of the characters. The characters are foolish, irresponsible, and naïve but this is exactly what makes them human. The audience can easily identify with their loss, their disillusionment, and their desire for a better life.

Mark O’Rowe’s production succeeds in creating a prevailing sense of tragedy throughout the play. Even in the moments when the characters are at their most optimistic, there is a sense of only almost reaching what they desire; a sense of impending disappointment. This idea is emphasised by subtle visual clues such as the beautiful green dress that Mary wears when her fiancé visits. The dress does not fit Mary well and her frail frame does not do it justice. In the same way, her engagement to Charles remains temporary: like something that she is allowed to try on, but not to keep. Just before the commencement of the final scene, the lighting in the stage area remains dim, but the proscenium is sharply lit in a bright, white, unyielding light which emphasises the cruelty and finality of the play’s outcome.

Despite the depressing subject matter of the play, O’Casey avoids sentimentality by including ample incidences of comedy. In this regard, I want to single out Ingrid Craigie who portrayed the character of Mrs Maisie Madigan with the perfect combination of comic timing and authenticity.

Although I found the play’s ending to be “overwritten” by contemporary standards, Juno and the Paycock remains an intriguing text and Mark O’Rowe’s production does not disappoint.