IN RECENT years Mark O’Rowe has boldly underlined his place as one of the major players in modern Irish drama. His re-imagining of his breakthrough play Howie the Rookie was an enormous success in 2013, one swiftly followed up by a bracing new play at the Abbey, Our Few and Evil Days, the following year. Then last year there came DruidShakespeare, upon which O’Rowe collaborated with Druid Theatre Company’s Garry Hynes, providing the blueprint for a mammoth seven-hour production of Shakespeare’s history plays.
Not pausing for breath, O’Rowe will shoot his debut feature film, The Delinquent Season, later this year. In the meantime, however, there is the small matter of directing a new production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock at the Gate Theatre.
Significantly, while he has directed his own work very successfully in recent years, this is his first time directing a play by another writer — and they don’t come much bigger than O’Casey. As a fellow Dubliner, you’d expect that O’Rowe might have counted O’Casey as a big influence. That’s not the case, however.
“I came into writing mostly through American and English literature,” says O’Rowe. “Minimalists like Harold Pinter and David Mamet and then the big baroque American novelists like James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy. And so O’Casey just bypassed me. I did see a production of Juno during my formative years and I didn’t pay much attention to it, because it wasn’t the territory that I was obsessing over.”
When the Gate’s artistic director, Michael Colgan, approached him to direct Juno, however, O’Rowe was quickly won over.
“I actually had to go out and buy the book and see if I liked it,” he says. “But it totally blew me away, and about 15 pages into it, I knew I was going to do it.”
A dark tragedy tinged with elements of uproarious comedy, Juno and the Paycock centres on the story of the Boyle family, residents of a Dublin tenement who struggle with poverty and hardship against the backdrop of the Civil War. The play is famous for O’Casey’s double-act of drunken scoundrels, Captain Jack Boyle and his fickle ‘buddy’ Joxer Daly (played by Declan Conlon and Marty Rea in the new production). While the selfish Boyle slowly escorts his family to hell in a handcart, his embattled wife Juno — the only one earning a wage — tries to keep the troubled clan together. When Boyle suddenly inherits a small fortune, the family looks set to escape the squalor. Alas, however, fate has something else in store.
From the moment he signed on for the play, O’Rowe only ever had the one actor in mind for Juno — the always impressive Derbhle Crotty.
“The Captain is very strong and I didn’t want Juno to be this very meek little thing beside him,” says O’Rowe. “I wanted her to be a force that could contend with him, and Derbhle has that.”
She certainly does. Crotty’s stage persona has always been buoyed by a certain forcefulness and forthrightness. Like O’Rowe, she regards Juno as a woman of bite and of backbone and also, crucially, as someone who is complex and flawed, elements that are sometimes overlooked in analysis of the play.
“It’s funny,” says Crotty. “We got into quite a heated debate on the first day. Somebody said that Juno was the ‘moral centre’ of the play, and I had a strong reaction to that. I felt that Juno doesn’t ‘represent’ anything. She has to be flesh and blood. She is someone who is very much responding to events as they occur. She is someone who has her head turned by the newfound wealth. She drops her guard. She makes mistakes. She’s not someone who is steering a ship always in one direction and always in the right and moral direction.”
Where Juno has been played at times as a somewhat passive figure, a woman fighting for the family unit first and herself a poor second, Crotty insists she is an active figure, full of vitality and spirit, and anything but an “emblem of Irish motherhood”.
“There’s that joke, isn’t there,” says Crotty. “‘How many Irish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? – ‘Ah, sure, don’t mind me, I’m grand sitting here in the dark.’ But I just don’t find any evidence for that view of Juno. She’s extremely active. Her badgering of Jack about work isn’t just for the sake of it. It’s to get him out there, to get the money in, and to start paying off some of the debts.
“There’s a reason there for all her actions. There’s a genuine urgency there. She’s the only one who sees the water rising higher and higher.
“Everyone else is talking about their principles and their bad legs, and she’s the one crying out all the time ‘Lads, we don’t know where the next meal is coming from.’
It seems significant that the Gate is producing O’Casey’s masterpiece now, 30 years after the seminal 1986 production of Juno that starred Donal McCann — one of the most acclaimed shows in Irish theatre history. It’s a significance that O’Rowe has refused to let cast a shadow on his version, however.
“If I had felt that shadow, then I’d have been crippled with fear on the first day,” he says. “The mountain of this play is already high enough without adding all that stuff to it. It’s the same process as writing. Self-doubt and confidence are huge components in the success or failure of a writer. Often good writing is about almost hypnotising yourself to suppress your critical faculties, so that you can be creative. Directing is sort of the same.”
There are, moreover, other ghosts at the Gate. Juno brings O’Rowe back to the scene of a weird moment early in his career — the Gate’s 2003 production of his scintillating play Crestfall, a show which notoriously led to members of the audience walking out, shocked at the play’s graphic content.
The writer remembers sitting in the auditorium and hearing all the seats flipping up as people left. “It was tough to deal with,” he admits, “although I also took it as maybe a point of pride.”
“When I wrote Crestfall I said I’m going to write the darkest thing ever and I’m going to challenge myself to make it about three women,” he says. “I remember thinking that I didn’t want there to be any humour, any air. And it was very intense, just over an hour long.
“So what happens is that as a writer, you say to yourself, ‘This is a challenge to my audience, and it’s a provocation, and this is real art.’ But then when you watch it and they don’t like it, you’re deeply hurt. So there’s a real conflict there.”
One suspects that things will probably go more smoothly this time around.