“Juno and the Paycock,” currently playing at the Shaw Festival, is a profoundly challenging play. It not only entertains with humour, song, slapstick, and irony, but it also demands attention and reflection. For it presents issues only too familiar to all of us on this planet and asks if we are able to transcend our tribal and political differences and if we have the courage to be honest with ourselves and with others. If not, the result may ultimately be utter chaos. As Captain Boyle laments just before the curtain (symbolically) falls and the lights dim: “The whole world is in chassis.”
The audience enters the Dublin tenement world through two enormous open doors on either side of the proscenium arch. The stage is balanced between light (from the window on stage right) and darkness (from the door on stage right), just as the characters in this play are presented with the opportunity to choose between light and darkness. But in this world of poverty, class struggle, national identity, religion, they continue to make decisions that will, ultimately, harm them.
We discover that loyalty to one another, friendship, love have become mere shadows. Captain Boyle, whose antics keep the audience laughing, will say whatever is expedient. In fact, Boyle, the Peacock of the play, has abandoned love and caring for self–love, posturing, prevaricating, and he seeks to maintain power by roaring his way through the day, finding refuge in alcohol. When he seems to have come into an inheritance, he quickly embraces the airs of an empty bourgeois, filling his home with furniture bought on credit. He is partnered by the equally alcoholic freeloader, Joxer, who will do anything to please even when he despises the other.
Then there is Mary, the daughter, who wants to escape intellectual and physical poverty. She rejects her previous suitor for another, the elegant Charles Bentham, who betrays the family and Mary when he is unable to admit his own incompetence as a lawyer and abandons them and the by now pregnant Mary.
John Boyle, the son, wants to do the right thing politically, has been wounded in his fight for “Ireland,” but has also betrayed a comrade, the son of a neighbour, something for which he will ultimately be forced to pay.
Trying to support the members of her family—both financially and emotionally—is Juno Boyle, whose ability to survive parallels that of O’Casey’s mother, who raised him and supported him when she was widowed. Like the Juno of Roman mythology, she is also the force ruling the family home, the “goddess of the hearth.” But such power also has a negative side because Juno will not allow the men in her family to grow up and learn to look after themselves.
There is a brief respite of fun, laughter, and song, but the music collapses and the violent death of a young man and the grief of his mother enter the picture, a mother who makes the ultimate plea” “Give us hearts of flesh instead of hearts of stone.”
In the end, having lost her own son to political sectarianism, Juno decides to no longer support the “peacock” in her life. She leaves with her daughter, whose child may not have a father but something much better: “two mothers.”
The darkness inherent in the play would not be as effective were it not accompanied by O’Casey’s love for the comic, which Jackie Maxwell’s production (along with great set design, lighting, and music) and the outstanding ensemble cast beautifully realize for us. An exceptional theatre experience! V
JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK
Until Oct. 12
@ Royal George Theatre,
85 Queen St.