This review was originally written for Theatre Bristol Writing in Residence.
Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy portrays a world he knew only too well; cramped, impoverished tenements full of the unemployed and malnourished in a country riven by unrest.
The second play of the series, Juno and the Paycock, is set in the schism of the 1922-3 Irish Civil War and tells the story of the beleaguered Boyle family. As the play opens, Juno is just about keeping the household afloat despite a work-shy husband, her daughter Mary being on strike and son Johnny already scarred by fighting. She may have little to start with, but by the end she comes to realise how much further it’s possible to sink.
Bristol Old Vic has collaborated with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse to co-produce this hard-hitting tale of deprivation and despair. From the beginning, Conor Murphy’s set emphasizes the Boyle’s lack of privacy in their own rooms, with a barricade-like pile of wooden bed-frames, chairs and tables in the background, inhabited by the watching ensemble. The heightened reality of characters picking their way through this confusion is enhanced by Peter Coyte’s hauntingly melancholic music, although there’s relief at first when the plaintive wail of the violin gives way to a fast, uplifting beat complete with clattering pots and pans.
Gemma Bodinetz’s direction brings out the light in the Boyle’s straightened circumstances as well as the gathering shade. There’s knockabout comedy as the Captain and his slippery ‘butty’ Joxer attempt to evade both work and the wrath of Juno. There’s rejoicing as Bentham, an unexpected visitor from England, apparently brings news of a fortune coming the Captain’s way.
But darkness is never far from the surface; Johnny, who lost an arm in the war, is troubled by visitations both real and imaginary, and, despite the family’s newfound wealth, continues to wear old, torn clothes. A celebratory get-together round a gramophone is interrupted by the funeral of the die-hard Tancred and the raw grief of his mother. And, during the third act, any light is completely extinguished; as tragedy piles upon misfortune, humour is stripped away.
Niamh Cusack is totally convincing in her nuanced portrayal of Juno’s resignation to her struggle; she keeps our sympathy in a role that could easily become nagging and shrewish. Her joy in the family’s short-lived fortune is followed by a wretched descent into hopelessness; intoning “Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh!”, she refuses to cross herself with Holy Water as she leaves her empty home for the final time.
Although he’s hardly set foot in a boat, Des McAleer’s Captain is quick to tell expansive tales of his sea-faring days and proclaim phantom pains when faced with a day’s labouring. On stage alone he’s mesmerising, whether cooking a sausage for breakfast or open-mouthed and defeated at the end. Maggie McCarthy gives a heart-rending cameo as Mrs Tancred and Aoife McMahon’s spirited performance as Mrs Madigan highlights the fickleness of friendship and community when fortunes are reversed.
This is an inspired and unsparing production which highlights the lack of dignity in poverty and the searing bleakness of loss. I've seen this play several times yet still left the theatre shell-shocked; it emphasizes themes which are as powerfully relevant today as they were when O’Casey first wrote it.
Running until 27th September 2014 at Bristol Old Vic. Tickets are available here. Then at Liverpool Playhouse 1st-18th October 2014.
Picture copyright Stephen Vaughan, courtesy of Bristol Old Vic.