Thursday 18 April 2019

Gender blind or not, Joxer never flew so high

  • Joxer Daly Esq, Bewley's Cafe Theatre, Dublin

Phelim Drew in 'Joxer Daly Esq' at Bewley's Cafe Theatre until August 4
Phelim Drew in 'Joxer Daly Esq' at Bewley's Cafe Theatre until August 4

Emer O'Kelly doubts the phantasm of Joxer Daly, office clerk.

It sounds like a great idea - to take the iconic/pretty well immortal (to overuse both terms) Joxer Daly from Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock and explore his "backstory". But it's not such a good idea to ignore likely realities and invent a story that is, at best, improbable and (to anyone with even a passing historical awareness of Dublin tenement life and conditions at the beginning of the 20th century) utterly far-fetched.

O'Casey's snivelling whelp of a man - spongeing and crawling, with no thought beyond the survival of his filthy body, to whom even the worthless work-shy Captain Jack Boyle is someone to be battened upon as a superior being worth cultivating - may be worthy of pity as well as contempt. But to elevate him as the victim of actual events, rather than of the universal circumstances of the poor and dispossessed, flies in the face of O'Casey's genius.

O'Casey was a realist - he didn't patronise his characters. And this is what Eddie Naughton does, unfortunately, in Joxer Daly Esq - his new one-man play for Bewley's Cafe Theatre.

He falls into the trap of viewing history in a modern perspective rather than through the reality and consciousness of its lived experience.

The Boyle family live in a tenement, permanently on the verge of starvation, without thought or hope of advancement beyond their terrible condition until promised a pathetic legacy which disappears at the hands of a cruel conman. But their condition is immeasurably above that of Joxer, 'Captain' Boyle's whining drinking companion, barely coherent, and barely literate (if that).

In Naughton's writing, however, he is the victim, in part, of a dawning social conscience, fallen from the grace of a petty-bourgeois life. He makes him a cocky little clerk, living in rooms (plural) in Pimlico, and able in his (frequent) cups to exchange literary allusions with his boss. Give us a break! (There's even a respectably lower middle-class widow who might have been Mrs Daly in the background).

Already in trouble for his drinking, he uses the 1913 General Strike and lockout to withdraw his labour in "sympathy" with Larkin's labouring class, although he loathes Larkin (and Connolly). Logical? And not unnaturally, given history as we know it, he is given his walking papers.

To have Joxer Daly contextualising history defies credibility. Yet Naughton does have an ear for Dublinese, and putting his work into the hands of a very fine actor directed by a good director manages to carry it over many of its faults.

And this is undoubtedly the case with Phelim Drew's powerhouse performance as the wild-eyed, shambling figure in the rats and as close to death as makes no matter. He controls the space and the material admirably under Karl Shiels's surehanded direction.

There's an atmospherically minimal set by Lisa Krugel lit by Colm Maher with sound by Peter O'Neill.

Joxer Daly Esq. is an in-house production at Bewley's Cafe Theatre lunchtime, which has returned to its original location on the second floor of Bewley's in Grafton Street, Dublin.

*******

When Ruth Negga walks onstage at the Gate Theatre as Hamlet during the Dublin Theatre Festival, it's not unreasonable to expect her performance will be electrifying: she has been a spectacularly fine actor since I first saw her in the title role of Lolita on the Peacock Stage quite a few years ago.

Given her worldwide fame now, it has also been a spectacular coup for Gate director Selina Cartmell to sign her up. It also follows in the true Shakespearean tradition of cross-gender casting.

That came about due to the law of the land: women were not permitted on the stage in Elizabethan England.

But now in Ireland we have Gender Counts: an analysis of gender in Irish Theatre 2006-2015, a report written by Dr Brenda Donohue, who suggests that "statistics strip away layers of familiarity, unconscious bias, routine, and everyday pressures".

Apparently our leading theatre makers agree, and eminent companies (other than our national Abbey Theatre, which already seems committed to every current box-ticking requirement other than artistic excellence) have signed up to various forms of gender balance implementation.

For the Abbey, with two male artistic directors, it's 50pc writing commissions for women. Most of our other important companies are already led by women: Druid, Corn Exchange, Gate, Rough Magic, Cork Everyman. (So is the hugely successful Landmark, although Anne Clarke does not seem to be part of this initiative.) Sticking out like the proverbial, are Jim Culleton and Willie White, respectively of Fishamble and Dublin Theatre festival.

Culleton currently directs most his company's work, and damn well too. Is he going to retire gracefully?

On the other hand, is Garry Hynes going to retire from Druid's stage into the office to allow for 50pc male direction?

Above all, what will happen with the implementation of the idea with which I began: a commitment to "gender-blind" readings and castings?

There has already been an all- female Waiting for Godot: a desecration of the author's intent and intention. But perhaps it doesn't matter: after all, Beckett was male and therefore suspect. And of course he's dead, and can't say anything.

Will the next production of Roddy Doyle's The Snapper have Sharon's little brother as the one who gets pregnant? And are we about to see Three Tall Men, or Edward Albee's awkwardly sexual tensions delivered by men in drag?

We appear to be running ourselves into a straitjacket. Balance: let's keep to it, include common sense, and remember respect for the author's intentions is also a requirement in theatre.

Sunday Independent

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