This was my introduction to the great Dublin trilogy of plays that made Sean O'Casey's name, and given that the production was coming direct from the Abbey Theatre Dublin with a superb cast, I was expecting something very special. However I was disappointed.
The action is set in the dilapidated tenament flat of the Boyle family, the ceiling showing the traces of 18th Century forgotten grandeur. Bedrooms are simply partitioned or curtained off allowing little or no privacy for Juno Boyle (Sinead Cusack) her workshy husband Captain Jack Boyle (Ciaran Hinds) and their children pretty Mary (Clare Dunne) and Johnny (Ronan Raftery), who has lost an arm in the Irish uprising against the English.
Whilst Captain Jack paycocks round the town avoiding the risk of being asked to do any work, Juno holds the family together. Mary sets eye on schoolteacher Charles Bentham, who has his eye on her in return, especially when it transpires that Captain Jack may be the beneficiary of a will due to the death of a relative. However, the will is not what it seems and the family who have spend extravagantly on credit on the back of it soon see all their goods recovered. Wrestling with the spectre of poverty are these of the Civil War and the harsh morality of the times. Johnny has betrayed a "Die Hard" neighbour and is living in fear of his life as a consequence, whilst Bentham's absence in England is explained when Mary announces that she is pregnant. In a final poignant scene, Captain Jack staggers around drunkenly, unaware that everything that he had has been lost.
The play is undeniably powerful, yet this production failed to inspire. The first problem is a simple one of intelligibility - the powerful Dublin accents take a long time to get used to, and much of the first half was barely comprehensible.Whilst I don't believe that audiences should be patronised with easy theatre, there is still a minimum threshold of intelligibility that must be met. But the second problem was much more fundamental - the central performances simply lacked the depth that their characters required. Admittedly, I was watching this at a first preview and the cast may still be adjusting from their transfer from the more intimate Abbey Theatre to the caverns of the National, but I just couldn't believe that Sinead Cusack had the strength to hold the family together, or that the normally wonderful Ciaran Hinds could do anything other than shout, whilst Ronan Raftery looked more like a love-sick teenager than a wounded soldier in fear of his life. I will however exclude Clare Dunne from this criticism, as she held the stage as a tenement girl who is capable of attracting such a catch as a solicitor must be able to do, Risteard Cooper as the disreputable rogue Joxer Daly, who is capable of stealing his best friends last bottle of stout, and a wonderful cameo from Janet Moran as Mrs Maisie Madigan, the Boyle's earthy neighbour.
The production simply lacked the power from the central characters to drive the play's dramatic trajectory first up as they come to terms with their supposed wealth and then down into the depths as the truth about the will is revealed - the first half in particular was very weak, the second half improved as this is where O'Casey's most powerful writing is concentrated.But by this time the damage has been done, you simply don't care enough for the central characters to be able to properly feel the nature of the tragedy. And this is a great shame, as you can see the palimpsest of a great play peeking through.