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  • Chris O'Rourke

Galway International Arts Festival 2023: Druid O'Casey

Hilda Fay and Rory Nolan in Juno and the Paycock, part of Druid O'Casey. Image Ros Kavanagh


Druid O’Casey. The Plough and the Stars, Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock performed back to back on the same day. A marathon production premiering at The Galway International Arts Festival 2023, sold out before opening night. O’Casey’s tales of the Dublin tenements addressing personal and political change during the nation shaping years 1916 to 1922. Featuring characters who have become part of Irish culture; Juno, The Paycock, Fluther Good, Joxer, The Young Covey, Mollser, Minnie Mulligan, Bessie Burgess. At my hotel, a sprightly receptionist, incandescent with envy, offered to swap two Taylor Swift tickets for my one to Druid O’Casey. I won’t lie, I was tempted, Tay Tay puts on a great show. But she can’t hold a candle to Druid and O’Casey when it comes to great Irish theatre.

Sophie Lenglinger and Hilda Fay in The Plough and the Stars, part of Druid O'Casey. Image Ros Kavanagh

If my tone suggests levity more than gravitas, with just a hint of respectful irreverence, it reflects director Garry Hynes’s brave approach in staging The Dublin Trilogy; emphasising comedy over tragedy, casting black actors in traditionally white roles, providing historical insight and contemporary resonance. Here, salt of the earth, shrewish women and drunk, idle men are in pursuit of, or indifferent to, political change. Opportunistic, unable to agree on anything besides half a malt, how a nation ever emerged almost defies belief. Working class people, shining in adversity, guilty of treating a serious thing as a joke and a joke as a serious thing. Like this production on more than one occasion.

Aaron Monaghan and Sarah Morris in The Plough and the Stars, part of Druid O'Casey. Image Ros Kavanagh

Played to reflect chronological historical events as opposed to when each play was first produced, The Plough and the Stars (first performance, 1926) gets things started with a stirring production. Focusing on tenement life during the 1916 Rising, broad comedy frequently dampens the underlying tragedies. Hynes establishing primary themes which recur in all three productions, beginning with tensions between the personal and the political. Sophie Lenglinger’s jittery Nora Clitheroe, whose need for her husband is in direct opposition to her country’s need for his sacrifice. Nora, the first of many women traumatised, or killed by boys throwing tantrums playing at being men. Captured perfectly in the shows key promotional image by artist Mick O’Dea, whose painting, Attention, shows boys dressed as soldiers. Leaving mothers like Bessie Burgess bereft when her son was killed in the name of someone’s greater good. A notion dependent on which side of the ideological divide you stand, which propaganda can flip on its head comrade, sister, Irishman, Republican. Making enemies of friends and friends of enemies. The brilliant Sarah Morris and Hilda Fay as Mrs Gogan and Bessie Burgess respectively, along with Marty Rea’s The Young Covey and Bosco Hogan’s Peter Flynn playing comedy double acts whose near slapstick shenanigans overshadow their dramatic fisticuffs and reconciliation. Dramatic punches not landing near as cleanly. Bessie Burgess’s operatic death a compromise of pantomime and melodrama. As is Aaron Monaghan's hilarious Fluther Good.

Bosco Hiogan, Aaron Monaghan and Sean Kearns in The Plough and the Stars, part of Druid O'Casey. Image Ros Kavanagh

Set in 1920 during the War of Independence, Shadow of a Gunman (first performance, 1923) again sees boastful, cowardly men and strong, victimised women negotiating political change, with women again bearing the brunt. Marty Rea’s excellent Donal Davoren, living out his portrait of the artist as a young nightmare, takes advantage of a case of mistaken identity to increase his social standing, echoing Playboy of the Western World. Rea something of a straight man to Rory Nolan’s Seamus Shields, a Joycean Del Boy with a flair for quoting poetry. Comedic brilliance shining in Caitríona Ennis’s distinctive Minnie Powell, more playful flapper with a backbone than saintly, virginal ingénue. In fairness to Hynes there’s so much comedy to exploit that tragedy has an uphill struggle establishing itself. Hynes exploiting comedy for all it’s worth till it resembles a cross between a vaudeville routine and an episode of Steptoe and Son. Breathtakingly hilarious till the serious comes along when bombs are discovered and Minnie takes responsibility for hiding them. The Black and Tans arriving like moustached villains. The end instilling laughter as much as pathos. Comedy writ large in Sean Kearn’s parading Orangeman, the image likely to live with you forever. Indeed, comic cameos prove brilliant throughout this marathon, three play journey. Anna Healy’s Rosie Redmond, (The Plough and the Stars) Catherine Walsh’s woman from Rathmines (The Plough and the Stars) and Robbie O’Connor’s Tommy Owens (Shadow of a Gunman) all turning in scene stealing performances.

Marty Rea, Robbie O'Connor and Caitriona Ennis in Shadow of a Gunman, part of Druid O'Casey. Image Ros Kavanagh

With Juno and the Paycock (first performance, 1924), Hynes finds something of a balanced sweet spot. O’Casey focusing on the effects of religion with the 1922 Civil War serving as backdrop. Not just Catholicism, but all religion takes a beating even as Juno’s final prayer is rendered as a heartbreak of hope and futility. Hilda Fay’s long suffering Juno Boyle, married to Rory Nolan's reprobate Paycock, a drunken narcissist who believes his own press. A couple for whom unexpected good fortune doesn’t so much change their lives as reveal why change is needed. Especially when Zara Devlin’s Mary is disgraced by Liam Heslin’s excellent Bentham, looking like he strolled in from a Wodehouse novel. Caitríona Ennis again inspirational as a croaking songbird not afraid to push back in a world of men doomed by their own arrogance. Like Johnny Boyle, languishing in anguish, a commentary on the cost of war, Tommy Harris’s enflamed performance suggesting a deranged Renfield suffering PTSD. If Aaron Monaghan’s darling Joxer feels less realised, it has much to do with Joxer playing second fiddle to Monaghan’s superb Fluther, the latter a spellbinding performance which overshadows that of the Paycock’s enabler. Rory Nolan’s often flabbergasted Paycock also spellbinding. His hilarious vanity knowing no bounds, yet whose threatening authority announces when the fun is over. Facilitating a shift to dark places. Where real change is embraced by the women who suffered most. If, in each play, men get the final stage image, it’s a tagged on epilogue rather than them having the last word. A final warning. Final words, and deeds, having already been uttered by women.

Hilda Fay and Zara Devlin in Juno and the Paycock, part of Druid O'Casey. Image Ros Kavanagh

If Druid’s excellent Three Short Comedies by O'Casey took ideas realised here for a test run, the same proves true of design. Even if liminal spaces are given more room to play next to meticulous period details. The final, haunting hall door powerful in idea and execution. Given that the same design team were involved in both productions, it should come as little surprise that design is impeccably realised. Francis O’Connor’s set and costumes, James F. Inglass’s lights, Gregory Clarke’s sound design, Conor Linehan’s compositions, David Bolger’s movement and Gráinne Coughlan’s hair and make-up achieving enviable standards of excellence. Honouring O’Casey’s stew of theatrical frames, from melodrama to expressionism, music hall to realism, Hynes and team make bold, theatrical choices. Fashioning a satisfying meal from three distinct, yet complimentary courses, rather than serving up three slices of the same pizza.

Anna Healy and Marty Rea in The Plough and the Stars, part of Druid O'Casey. Image Ros Kavanagh

To see one of O’Casey's classics is to be astonished at the manner in which he and the National Theatre of the time courageously articulated, challenged, and shaped an emerging Ireland. To see all three together is to go deeper and to ask how far have we travelled, or failed to? O’Casey, and The Abbey, unafraid to risk riots and sanctions from church, state and the populace to ask hard questions. Highlighting failings that inhibited our growth. Like the inverted snobbery behind notions of upperosity which ensured the English didn’t have to keep us in our place; we were only too happy to patrol those borders ourselves. A legacy that continued late into the twentieth century, reflected in the second best, runner-up mentality: the band, the football team, the small business that almost made it, but didn’t. But sure aren’t we happier for it? Many of the questions raised by O’Casey proving prescient, and alas, still relevant. O’Casey asking them long before most, his interrogations yet to be surpassed. Making Druid O'Casey crucial, contemporary and relevant.

Caitriona Ennis and Marty Rea in Shadow of a Gunman, part of Druid O'Casey. Image Ros Kavanagh

Alongside their marathon productions, Druid have a reputation for producing memorable performances. If there’s any justice in this world, Hilda Fay deserves every award imaginable for her two iconic performances of two iconic roles, destined to become the stuff of legend. As well as providing much of the dramatic glue that holds both opening and closing productions together, Fay humanises what are often cartoonish caricatures. Fay’s Bessie, a soft hearted, hardened soul whose look could cut you and whose voice could curdle butter. Juno of a similar persuasion, world wearied and long suffering, yet whose smile you’d brave No Mans Land just to glimpse. Its heartfelt warmth, married to Juno’s resilience, ending the day's journey with hope for the future. None of which diminishes an excellent ensemble who challenge each other to greater heights. Indeed, it is they who put Fay’s remarkable achievement in its proper context. Fay being a tour de force, and a privilege to behold.

Rory Nolan and Hilda Fay in Juno and the Paycock, part of Druid O'Casey. Image Ros Kavanagh

As, indeed, is Druid O’Casey. Hynes clearly adores O’Casey, but she refuses to limit him, or be limited by him. If she leans heavily into broad comedy, the compensation is serious laughs and infectious good fun. No one can deny the rigour, ambition and brilliance which informs every second on stage. Even in the final moments. Hynes’s clever play on the door handle, which opens and closes the day, a moment of genius opening countless interpretive possibilities. There are many such moments throughout Druid O’Casey. You might not agree with them all, but you’re sure to enjoy what is arguably the theatrical event of the year.

Two Tay Tay tickets for one Druid O’Casey? You must be joking.

Druid O’Casey: The Plough and the Stars, Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock, runs at Galway International Arts Festival until July 30. Transferring to:

Lyric Theatre, Belfast: August 5 -19

Abbey Theatre, Dublin, August 26 - September 15

A US tour follows.

For more information visit respective venues, Galway International Arts Festival or Druid.

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