Juno and the Paycock at the Gate Theatre

“On a little bye-road, out beyant Finglas, he was found.”

From the opening obituary of Sean O’Casey’s 1924 drama, it’s clear the world occupied by his characters is an unstable one. Their fortunes, brightened for a time by the promise of love and money, must ultimately conform to the play’s initial tragedy.

And yet a fine balance is struck in the current production at the Gate Theatre.

What Is the Stars?

Running until April 16, Juno and the Paycock sees director Mark O’Rowe tackle the tenement drama of O’Casey’s Civil War Dublin.

Onto Paul Wills’s minimalist set and under the unobtrusive lighting of Sinead McKenna, the characters come and go with alarming frequency. The main room of the tenement flat, occupied by the Boyle family, becomes an epicentre of interruption; drunken neighbours, grieving mothers and thuggish IRA men all descend upon the Boyles, whose promise of a family inheritance may yet save them from squalor.

It would be easy for O’Rowe, as director, to steer the production towards the inherited tropes of Irish theatre, to reduce the characters down to caricatures. Yet the “shrieking mammy”, the “dewy-eyed daughter” and the “headstrong republican son” are all softened in this production, which, though still firmly rooted in the colloquial, allows the performers to explore other avenues of representation.

Declan Conlon’s turn as “Captain” Jack Boyle sees the “paycock” strutting in from the imbiber’s snug with boozing buddy Joxer Daly, played by Marty Rea. Conlon’s Captain is as comfortable dodging employment as he is roaring at other family members, blurring the line between ne’er-do-well charm and capricious solipsism.

Rea, nervously snickering throughout, offers up an altogether different interpretation of a traditional comic foil. Devilish rather than dumb, Rea’s Joxer is as much equipped to jump out windows as he is to unsettle his fellows in an already unsettled world.

As Captain Boyle and his long-suffering wife Juno await their windfall, outside affairs constantly threaten to encroach upon their lives. Their daughter Mary, played Caoimhe O’Malley will bring home her would-be suitor Charles Bentham, played by Emmet Kirwan. Their son Johnny, played petulantly by Fionn Walton, howls and bangs the set with the only arm left him, having lost the other during the struggle for independence, a struggle his fellow fighters see as unfinished.

Yet as the Boyle family carouse and reminisce, surrounded by their newly acquired belongings and fellow dwellers, the light-hearted aspects of the play shine through without shifting into outright comedy. O’Rowe’s production is one which reifies O’Casey’s fiction as mutable, without forcing changes down the audiences’ throats. Subtle alterations to the lights, costumes and furniture allow the comedy-of-manners section in Act 2 to seem perfectly normal for a Dublin tenement during the Civil War.

It could be said that O’Casey’s drama lends itself to rudimentary stage design, and yet the simplicity of Paul Wills’s set perfectly suits the drama on stage; the subtle details of a Sacred Heart painting and encroaching black mould rendering the Boyle family home all the more visually deprived.

The language of the play, shifting between lofty sentiment and quotidian gutter talk, is well paced, but not all of the actors quite manage to pull off the Dublin accent. Another jarring element of the production was the otherwise irrelevant IRA men who ultimately complete the Boyle family tragedy. In a generally sympathetic production, the hard-line fundamentalists function simply as mechanical harbingers.

Your Poor Oul’ Selfish Mother

Without giving too much away, wave upon wave of distress hits the tenement flat occupied by the Captain and his wife Juno, played by Derbhle Crotty. And it is Juno who bares the weight of it all, with Crotty’s performance a potent blend of jaded stoicism and lively gumption.

Where Conlon’s Captain offers swaggering bravado, Crotty’s Juno is the ultimate survivor. The dynamic between the two actors sets in motion what must have been considered, for its time, a thoroughly modern play. When Juno announces that Mary’s baby will “have what’s far betther – it’ll have two mothers”, one thinks how early in feminist theory O’Casey could be placed.

Crotty’s performance is bolstered by excellent supporting roles, most notably the grieving Mrs Tancred, played by Bríd Ní Neachtain, and Ingrid Craigie as the dotty, ball-o’malt-swilling neighbour Maisie Madigan.

This is undoubtedly one of the better productions of O’Casey’s drama, steering clear of stagey notions and oversimplified characterisations. For a sobering examination of Dublin life during its most bitter period, Juno and the Paycock is likely to be one of the more enlightening revolution-related events you’ll see this year.

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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