Juno and the Paycock

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National Theatre until 26 February 2012

What makes Juno and the Paycock a masterpiece is that even today it teaches us important lessons about Irish society that should have been learnt nearly a century ago. This tragi-comedy is the second play of Sean O'Casey's Dublin trilogy and was first performed in 1924. It's a grim tale of the Boyle family who live in a tenement in Dublin during the Irish Civil War that began in 1922.

At the centre of the play is Juno, a women who has struggled in life but has a great strength and realism. The men of the play are presented as moral weaklings, especially the workshy Captain Jack Boyle. The play skilfully deals with themes of poverty, religion and war by forcing us to look at everything from a domestic point of view. It shows the true cost of war and in particular how the Irish Civil War affected the working class of Ireland, through the character of Johnny.

Johnny was left wounded in the Easter Rising of 1916 and in the process of the struggle betrayed a comrade. The failure of the Rising, which led ultimately to the partition of Ireland and the Civil War, had dire consequences for the working class. In the play the nationalist ideals of the men can't compete with the reality of the situation, expressed by Juno: "What were the pains I suffered Johnny, bringin' you into the world to carry you to your cradle, to the pains I suffer now bringing you out o' the world to carry you to your grave." This quote sums up the pain and suffering people endured at this time and since.

The author was an interesting character himself. The play expresses O'Casey's frustration and anger at the marginalisation of the working class by middle class conservatives in Ireland's revolution. O'Casey was born into a poor Protestant family in Dublin's north inner city. He was a Gaelic speaker in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Citizen Army and an active trade unionist.

He was highly sceptical of the middle class militants who rose to positions of prominence in the run up to 1916. Of revolutionary socialist James Connolly, a leading figure in the Easter Rising, he says, "He saw red no longer, but stared into the sky for a green dawn."

The eclipse of the organised working class and the betrayal of that part of the struggle led O'Casey to write this play and through it he expressed his anger at the mess that was created by partition. Kevin O'Higgins, an Irish minister, described himself and his fellow parliamentarians in similar terms at the time, as, "the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution".

Sadly, I feel that in this production the play has been let down by the sheer scope and space of the stage itself. The play is set in a tenement building in Dublin, not Dublin Castle, and the sheer size of the stage dwarfs the cast and intimate dialogue. A tenement is an enclosed environment that put families in close proximity. The staging of this production loses the intensity and ferocity that is evident in the writing. At times the play loses touch with the gritty reality of its subject matter and crosses into Downton Abbey territory. However, in the last act the play finds its soul. The final scenes involving Johnny, Mary, Captain Boyle and Juno are a joy to watch.