- Juno and the Paycock, and: The Veil
Two productions, in Dublin and London respectively, recently revealed the richness of contemporary Irish theatre production and added a new episode to the close and complex relationship between Irish dramatists and British theatre. The O’Casey play that opened Dublin’s Ulster Bank Theatre Festival in 2011 was the first cooperation between the Abbey Theatre and the National Theatre of Great Britain. Directed by Howard Davies, one of the most prolific directors at the National, the play included renowned actors in the leading roles: Sinéad Cusack played Juno Boyle, and Ciarán Hinds played her husband Jack. Conor McPherson’s play had its world premiere at the Lyttelton, one of the three theatres that make up the Royal National Theatre. As with his previous plays, he directed the first production of The Veil himself. His play is set in a manor in the Irish countryside, a hundred years before the events of Juno and the Paycock. Irish literature has not mapped the 1820s very well, but it was a crucial period with regard to the history of sectarian violence in the country. Anglo-Irish Protestant landlords are the protagonists, which is a rare choice in Irish literature.
The two plays share many themes and figures: strong female characters, the troubled Irish past, the supernatural and superstition, individual and collective action, and human and political failure. Jack Boyle’s peacock-masculinity prefigures the crisis of masculinity, a topic much cherished by contemporary Irish playwrights, including McPherson, who obsessively explores it in his plays and films and in The Veil contrasts strong-minded women with weak [End Page 427] men who are only braggarts. Moreover, and significantly for the present period of recession haunting Irish and British society, the two productions dealt with poverty. Juno and the Paycock emphasized an overall sense of poverty and deprivation, and although the poor were invisible in McPherson’s play, poverty and misery cast their shadow. The ghostly appearances of starving people were mentioned on several occasions, as well as hatred of the ruling class and the Irishmen who work for it. McPherson’s historical play links very clearly the traumatic effects on the Irish psyche of economic decline after the Napoleonic Wars with the crisis in post–Celtic Tiger Ireland.
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O’Casey and McPherson address historical events and their respective social problems—social decline and impoverishment—through the representation of individual fate and inner conflict. Although deeply rooted in Irish culture, these two works have a transcultural humanist significance. While O’Casey’s concerns went far beyond Irish nationalism, McPherson’s interest in existential questions, the place of the human being in the universe, is clearly situated in its own Irish cultural context. Although the historical and social settings contrast, the two plays correspond both in content (the decline of a family, even if the consequences are different for McPherson’s upper-class protagonists and for the Boyles) and tone (the blend of tragic and comic elements). McPherson’s work fits perfectly into the tradition of an Irish theatre fascinated by storytelling and attentive to the subtleties of language, accent, and idiom.
One might ask what there was to interest the contemporary viewer in narrative and directorial choices so obviously inspired by realism. Why did these productions reconstruct the atmosphere of the past in order to address burning contemporary issues like poverty? Realism, as the two productions demonstrated, is not a homogeneous block, but a complex system of conventions and illusions, and both productions explored and transcended this system.
Bob Crawley’s set design for Juno and the Paycock immediately revealed the directorial strategy to merge historical veracity and a metaphorical approach. The curtain rose to reveal a huge stage with a table and chairs, an armchair in the foreground, an oven, a small closet...