Magazine article The Spectator

The Heart of the Matter

Magazine article The Spectator

The Heart of the Matter

Article excerpt

Theatre Juno and the Paycock (Donmar Warehouse)

Life is a Dream (Barbican)

Gumboots (Lyric)

The heart of the matter Sheridan Morley

Juno is still the great one: certainly of all O'Casey, maybe still of all Irish drama ever. Written in 1924 as the centrepiece to his trilogy of tragedies about the first Troubles, this was the one in which O'Casey laid out the terrible truth of his native country this century, that lethal combination of religion and rebellion, poverty and drink, bravery and bravado which led to civil war and far beyond it. At a time when contemporary Irish playwriting has never been stronger or more in London evidence, it is good that John Crowley's spare, sparse, rapid new staging at the Donmar takes us straight back to the heart of where it all started, to the writer who first defined what we still mean by the Troubles.

But O'Casey was essentially a character man; a lot happens in Juno, from the false reading of a will through illegitimate pregnancy to two sectarian murders. But it is the people who transfix us here: Dearblha Molloy as Juno herself, the Catholic Madonna trying to hold together her drunken, wastrel Captain Jack while he destroys his own family as surely as if he had shot them, and above all Ron Cook in the performance of his career as the treacherous, furtive Joxer.

Unsentimental, refusing to underline any of the 1999 topicality any more than is already heart-wrenchingly obvious, Crowley's production is content just to tell the tale in all its awful majesty. O'Casey's characters could have stepped from Greek tragedy or indeed Shakespeare; what are the Captain and Joxer if not Falstaff and Pistol? But so timeless and total are they in what they have to tell us about themselves that what we have here is the dramatic equivalent of an Irish hooley, one of those local celebrations of which the essence is the song that makes you cry into your beer, the sudden switch from hilarity to sadness and the equally sudden switch back to noise and song and laughter. What O'Casey added to that, of course, was the sudden knock at the door in the night, be it of bailiffs or murderers; but in the end it is the mix of dignity and desolation in Juno herself in what is, at the last, her play, which gives it a transcendental greatness. No play about Ireland was more likely to be overturned by subsequent events, and yet no play this century remains more eternally topical, touching and tremendous.

At the Lyric, Gumboots is also a response to tribal conflict, albeit of a very different time and place; in the wake of Tap Dogs and Stomp comes a collection of 12 South African singers, dancers and musicians in the most eccentric, exuberant and energetic musical celebration in town. …

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