“Juno and the Paycock” by Sean O’Casey

at the Lyttelton Theatre, Thursday 29th December 2011

During times of political unrest, it’s easy to forget about the personal. We all become so preoccupied with the bigger picture that individual stories can be easily forgotten. In Juno and the Paycock, Sean O’Casey’s 1924 play, the second in his ‘Dublin Trilogy’, we are shown the struggles of the Boyle family during a time of termoil. Each family member loosely represents a different ideology and as circumstances drive them apart they forget about their beginnings. Howard Davies’ revival at the National Theatre is deeply tragic and somehow buoyantly pessimistic, resonating for audiences in 2011.

O’Casey’s play is ostensibly a look into the dangers of wealth and fetishisation of commodities in the 20th century; after living for years in poverty, the Boyle family find they have come into a small fortune and immediately furnish their tenement building with new objects. They are still just as unhappy, however, if not more so, and they fall into even deeper depression when it’s discovered they won’t be getting any money. It’s a crippling dismissal of materialism, but O’Casey’s play also demonstrates the dangers of idealism and the need to look for new means of struggle in the creation of a new Ireland. After years of violence, things aren’t getting any better and families are being pulled apart.

Davies’ production brings the political and the personal together, presenting a familial and emotional story on stage whilst always making us aware of what’s going on outside the windows on the streets. The attention is focussed keenly on Juno and the Captain (the ‘Paycock’ of the title), with the former representing the mother Ireland figure which has given up and lets the men get on with their fickle ways; it’s no longer worth the trouble. Bob Crawley’s hanger-like set is also incredibly claustrophobic, with only one side from which James Farncombe’s superb lighting emanates.

A strong cast brings out the stunning humanity evident in O’Casey’s often poetic text. Clare Dunne as the Boyle’s daughter Mary wants to escape the stifling world of her parents, but is unsure exactly how to do so, while Ronan Raftery’s Johnny (the son) looks to the past, sitting in the corner throughout and offering words of warning. Ciarán Hinds’ Captain is despicable yet strangely sympathetic and is cast brilliantly alongside Risteárd Cooper’s almost pantomimic Joxer Daly. But Sinéad Cusack as Juno is the beating heart of the play, stoically battling on throughout and remaining the only character with any desire to keep her family together.

Howard Davies has always done a remarkable job of managing to represent political messages through a human heart, and Juno and the Paycock is no exception. His production shows that both are intrinsically linked and impossible to separate. O’Casey’s words here are reminiscent of Ibsen, the emotions with echoes of Chekhov, the politics with allusions to Brecht. But what is definitely O’Casey’s own is his anger at utter stupidity of men and the constant need to reevaluate and look within.