O’Casey’s classic tragicomedy derives its strength from its searingly accurate dialogue, which is funniest to those who know Dublin and the argot of Dubliners well. The tribal nature of the piece was laid bare at the opening night of its run in London’s National Theatre, where the audience seemed willing to join in on the laughs but definitely missed quite a few gags as well.
Missing a trick also seemed to be the key driver behind some decidedly mixed reviews of the production in the British press. Both the The Guardian and the London Evening Standard, for example, made a point of criticising Sinéad Cusack’s wizened performance as the matriarch of the drama, which to this writer seemed to be a perfectly accomplished turn as the quintessential Irish Mammy.
“Sinéad Cusack’s careworn Juno, a woman who seems to be shrinking into herself, becoming physically smaller in front of your eyes, finally blazes into life, but it is quite a long time coming”, The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner wrote, while also praising her as one of the best actors in a two-star scolding.
The Evening Standard’s Fiona Mountford argues Cusack looks “worn out” throughout her performance adding that while she “admittedly rallies for a terrific final scene, still looks miserable when things temporarily go well for the Boyles”. The two papers also criticised the grey-filled set design as making poverty look pretty, something which was completely lost on me as well. Admittedly Ciarán Hinds’ working class Dub Boyle does seem to become a bit vaudevillian toward the end as these critics argued, but he also excels earlier in the play at delivering some of the piece’s best lines.
Twinning Ireland’s Abbey Theatre and Britain’s National Theatre to create a co-production staged in Dublin and London is such a great idea, I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before. But in the end, this two-step could arguably have chosen a more cross-cultural play from among the extensive annals of Anglo-Irish literature for its debut, even if early 20th century tenement poverty should be as familiar a tale to England as it is to Ireland.
Next time, let’s hope the two theatres plump for a more universally enjoyable candidate that will leave both natives and foreigners laughing in Dublin and London.
Juno and the Paycock
National Theatre London
Runs through February 2012.