Although my trip to the Lyttleton to see Juno and the Paycock was for a preview performance (tonight is the official opening at the National), I’d like to note that there’s no reason not to judge it fully as it stood last night – the production of this 1924 play is a transfer (and coproduction) with the Abbey in Dublin (which has already been reviewed).
Thursday, September 8th, 2011. In a frenzy of purchasing I attack the National Theatre website with the aim of securing, at the lowest possible price, tickets to all of the shows in the fall season – all of the ones I think I will enjoy, that is. I read the description of Juno and the Paycock: “One of the great plays of the twentieth century, Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock offers a devastating portrait of wasted potential in a Dublin torn apart by the chaos of the Irish Civil War, 1922.” Oh, well, okay! A great play, something to teach me about Irish history, and the pain of wasted potential – sounds like another August: Osage County or even Cat on a Hot Tin Roof! I happily dropped two tickets in my basket (balcony at £20, not as cheap as I was hoping) and went on to the rest of the season.
So. Intense struggling characters; a tightly knit family with their long connections (and resentments) carefully revealed through dialogue; some specifics about living conditions among the poor in the early twenties; a decent leavening of
Irish history. This is what I hoped for.
Horrible, comic, painful overacting (particularly from Ciaran Hinds and Risteard Cooper, who seemed to be in One Man Two Guv’nors); conversations that killed time but went nowhere; lines shouted from the stage; history as window dressing; characters cut from cardboard and moving like paper dolls on a set that looked like a rotting mansion. And worst of all, the play turned “the poor Irish” into caricatures: drunk, lazy, supersitious, ignorant, everything I would criticize as a ridiculous stereotype in a new show. I could feel no sympathy for any of them, because they were not sympathetic; but I felt genuine anger at the playwright, who, I felt, had not made an honest play.
This show was for me like being stuck at two of my least favorite shows of the last thirteen months, Men Shall Weep and Chicken Soup with Barley, as I frequently could not understand what was being said on stage (my American-ness working against me) and had a real dislike of the core characters. But Men Shall Weep at least seemed realistic (and sympathetic, if schmaltzy) and Chicken Soup incorporated the history of London communism to an extent that I became interested enough to do further research. And both of them had characters drawn from the fabric of reality, not from the funny pages, with relationships between them that held together after the curtain dropped. Juno and the Paycock, though – I am convinced that it is fatally flawed as a work on the 21st century stage; and the production could not convince me it had any merit at all.
At the interval (ninety minutes in and at least thirty minutes after I started wondering when we were to be set free), I consulted my companions about our courses of acction. Only one of us wished to stay and it was only so that he could finish his review by saying that he’d actually seen it all; but without me by his side, he didn’t feel he could stay awake. I was not willing to stay just so I could say that I had. I hated it. I wanted to leave the theater with a violent passion. We compromised by looking up the ending on Wikipedia, decided we didn’t really care how it played out, then all melted into the night.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 8th, 2011. It continues through February 26th, 2012. If you feel eager to see this play, I advise patience as you are very likely to be able to get discounted tickets later in the run.)