National Theatre (Lyttelton), London SE1
Opened 16 November, 2011
The London press-night performance of this co-production between Britain’s and Ireland’s national theatres had to be halted for a couple of minutes when a door on the set stuck. What was telling was that, as the cast slowly gathered round it to try and prise it open, most of the audience could not tell whether or not this was part of the intended business. This was not, as sometimes with onstage mishaps, because it was handled so smoothly, but rather because audience, cast and production all found themselves in the same uncertainty of register. This also meant that, when the action had restarted, the house laughingly applauded the door as it opened on to the figure of the Boyle family’s neighbour grieving for her murdered son. Ouch.
Reviewing its opening at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin earlier this autumn, Sarah Hemming on this page described Howard Davies’ production as “hollow”. That is it in a (ha) nutshell. Neither the mordant comedy nor the pathos of Sean O’Casey’s great play  is sufficiently evoked here to cue our emotional response, so that we either sit in silent hesitation or misinterpret the signals altogether. The Captain’s famous malapropism “The whole world is in a terrible state of chassis” did not even draw the kind of smug laughter which signifies not that the joke was funny but that one understood it; when that happens, something is misfiring badly.
Davies imbues proceedings with the stateliness and formality of a stereotypical Russian drama, which is odd given how unlike this his admired productions of Russian plays have been on this very stage in recent years. By the time Sinéad Cusack’s (always impressive) Juno moves in the final act into a threnody that is Greek-tragic in its intensity, it is too late. Then comes the coda of Ciarán Hinds and Risteárd Cooper as the Captain and hanger-on Joxer Daly, playing their extreme inebriation with a slowness that may be accurate but dissipates whatever head of dramatic steam Cusack has just built up. Hinds gives an exaggerated, mannered performance throughout, pacing and gesticulating as if engaged in a non-stop waltz. O’Casey’s play is here set before us with little plausibility or consequence.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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