This fine production of a truly great play marks the first collaboration between our two great institutional national theatres, British and Irish, the National and the Abbey in Dublin, and at this moment in history seems like an emotional truce in the wake of a century of political dispute and terrorism.
Juno’s lament, delivered without any blather or fuss by Sinead Cusack – “Sacred Heart of Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murdherin’ hate…” is a cry of enough is enough. Too many people have died in the name of religion and nationalism. So what else is new?
Howard Davies’ production, at once vivid and shadowy, is set in Bob Crowley’s monumental grey tenement apartment, lividly lit by James Farncombe, in the middle of Dublin. Davies does not skimp on the Shakespearean colour and character of the 1924 play, but nor does he let go of its vital, grim documentary flavour, either.
In the full flood of the 1922 civil war, there are marches and gunfire on the street outside. Juno’s son Johnny (Ronan Raftery) is a bitter, wounded cripple of the troubles, still hounded by the IRA enforcers. And Mrs Tancred (Bernadette McKenna) downstairs is about to go to the funeral of her son with other neighbours.
That key dramatic moment was comically, and briefly, undermined by a stuck door on the opening night. But the mood was quickly resumed after a few minutes. That mood, one of lethargic despair, flecked with high spirits, is established by the lounging, scrounging antics of work-shy Captain Jack Boyle and his scarecrow sidekick Joxer Daly.
Ciaran Hinds’ wonderfully aghast and lock-jawed Captain Jack would go for a job interview in his moleskin trousers if he could get over the twinges in his legs.
As Juno says, he can’t climb a ladder but he can skip like a goat into a snug. An unexpected windfall in a distant relative’s will sees the apartment flooded with posh new furniture; but that proves a temporary illusion along with all the others.
The personal and political are seamlessly interwoven as Juno’s daughter, Mary (a lovely, engaging performance by Clare Dunne), brushes off Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s devoted union activist in favour of Nick Lee’s socially bumptious schoolteacher. And of course that goes off the rails, too, with disruptive consequences.
It is a treat for London audiences to make acquaintance with modern Abbey Theatre stars such as Risteárd Cooper as the fawning, elasticated Joxer (turfed unceremoniously out the window when Juno returns to interrupt his “illicit” sausage breakfast with the Captain) and Janet Moran as the vaudevillian Maisie Madigan.
One of my earliest memories at the National is of the late, great Colin Blakely, sprawled on the stage of the Old Vic, drunkenly declaring that the whole world’s in a terrible state o’ chassis.
Hinds makes the moment more archly tragic, perhaps, but he carries the flawed humanity of the character slyly through the play, magnificently offset against Cusack’s trim, grey, worn-down figure of a plaster saint with no halo; and, anyway, at the end, it’s much more goodbye than halo.