One OF the highlights of the Town Hall’s autumn programme will be an outstanding new production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.
Presented by the Association of Regional Theatres (NI ) and Cork Opera House, the production has a distinct Galway stamp, with direction supplied by Andrew Flynn, design by Owen McCarthaigh, and the exemplary Brid Ní Neachtain as the eponymous Juno.
Juno and the Paycock, the middle play of O’Casey’s famed ‘Dublin Trilogy’, is one of the most highly regarded plays of the Irish canon. First performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1924, it tells the story of the Boyle family who live in a cramped two-room flat in a tenement house in Dublin in 1922.
It is a riveting blend of comedy and tragedy that exposes the appaling conditions in Dublin’s stifling tenements, but also their prevailing spirit and sense of community.
While the play vividly evokes the social and political milieu of the 1920s Dublin in which O’Casey wrote it, Juno still has much to say to today’s audience – indeed the Boyle family’s very own ‘credit crunch’, in which their reckless borrowing precipitates financial calamity has an immediate and piquant resonance, given the current economic climate.
As director Andrew Flynn observes: “It’s always the question you ask yourself when taking on a classic play like Juno; does it still speak to a modern audience? What we’ve found with Juno, both in rehearsals, and so far on the tour, is that O’Casey still speaks to a modern audience and there’s still a great appetite for his work.
“Certainly the Boyles’ credit crunch gets a response from our audiences it probably wouldn’t have received 10 years ago, but there are other aspects of the play that still ring true; you have a son who’s been to war and is trying to cope with the effects of that, there is danger on the streets outside, the father is a spendthrift alcoholic, the mother is trying to keep the family together. All these things are as recognisable for today’s audience as they were for O’Casey’s.”
If tackling one of Irish theatre’s major classics poses its own challenges, they’re ones that Flynn professes to relish.
“It’s been a pleasure working on the play,” he says. “It’s my first time directing an O’Casey play and one of the things I’ve learned is how well he knows his audience. He’s like Brian Friel I think, or Martin McDonagh, in the way that he just knows how a play works.
“All you need to do is follow his stage instructions and you find it clicks together perfectly. It’s phenomenal the way he reads an audience and knows just where to place the play’s mix of comic and tragic moments.”
Flynn goes on to reflect on the traits of the play’s central characters; Juno and her husband Captain Boyle.
“The captain is basically drinking his family to ruination, he’s one of these characters that we’ve all met,” he says. “At the same time you can’t totally dislike him or else the play wouldn’t work. I mean, Juno is an intelligent woman and, for all his faults, she still loves her husband.
“At the same time, by the end of the play she’s prepared to leave him to stick by her pregnant daughter, Mary. Juno knows the captain is too much of a coward to stand by Mary and face up to the disapproval an unmarried mother would meet in the 1920s but Juno is able to confront that stigma.
“She also knows she needs to leave her husband in order to support her daughter. She’s like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in that she is prepared to walk out on her marriage. In some ways you could say O’Casey’s play is about the conflict between men and women; and it has these very strong female roles in it.”
The character of Juno’s son, Johnny Boyle, the nerve-shattered War of Independence veteran is another figure from the play who carries present-day resonances as we encounter stories about the emotional and psychological damage from soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Johnny is a very interesting character,” notes Flynn. “He’s only 19 at the time the play’s story unfolds yet he was present at the Easter Rising, which means he was only 13 when he was taking part in it.
“We read about boy soldiers in recent wars in Africa but the play suggests such things happened here too. In some ways Johnny is like a ghost in the play, he’s kind of on-the–run from his former IRA comrades because he’s supposed to have informed on an ex-comrade but at the same time he feels unable to leave the tenement and seek safety elsewhere.”
Flynn speaks glowingly of the company he’s assembled for his production.
“Joe Hanley plays Joxer Daly and I think it’s a part he was born to play; he’s a fine character actor,” he says. “Garret Keogh is the captain and a seasoned leading actor; he’s been in a few other productions of Juno but never as the captain. He brings a great sense of bravado to the role as well as concern for his family.
Brid Ní Neachtain is an actor I’ve long admired and she brings great qualities of integrity and dignity to the part of Juno. I think the whole cast have clicked really well on this production and it’s been great working with them all.
“I also have to mention Owen McCarthaigh who did the set; we’ve worked together for the past few years and you know Owen will never let you down but his set for this show is really something; it has the authentic feel of a 1920s tenement but also says something powerful about the play’s world of a family and a society divided.”
Flynn is too polite to flag his own contribution but his direction is a major part in what is, by all reports, a terrific production. Here is the verdict of Mike Diskin, former director of the Town Hall and now running Belfast’s Lyric Theatre:
“I saw Andrew Flynn’s production of Juno and the Paycock last night at a packed Grand Opera House. From the moment when the curtain rises to reveal Owen MaCarthaigh’s monumental, amazing set, you know you are in for a special production. Keogh holds the stage in his hand as Captain Doyle and Hanley is surely definitive in his interpretation of Joxer Daly.
“When the crowd breaks into a spontaneous round of applause after Ní Neachtain delivers one of the great speeches in Irish drama ‘Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh!’ – you are left convinced again of the power of classic Irish drama…
“I have watched Andrew Flynn’s skills develop from his shows at the Town Hall Theatre and with GYT to this production, where he can call on the cream of Irish acting talent and the design values of a major production. He absolutely delivers. This is a directorial triumph. But the biggest winner of the night is O’Casey…you see this and you realise that new writers, the Martin McDonaghs and Conor McPhersons are following in the footsteps of writing like this...”
In short; unmissable.
Juno and the Paycock runs at the Town Hall from Tuesday November 11 to Saturday 15. For tickets contact the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.