THEATRE / King of the cabbage patch - That the name Brian Friel is now mentioned in the same breath as Sean O'Casey and J M Synge is thanks, in part, to the efforts of Joe Dowling. Sarah Hemming talks to the director

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'HE'S SEEN very much as the journeyman director par excellence,' says one friend of the Irish director Joe Dowling. This week Dowling seems to be running true to form. Though Dublin based, he's taking a short break from rehearsing A Midsummer Night's Dream at Stratford, Ontario, to ease his production of Juno and the Paycock into the West End. (He was last in London with Brian Friel's Faith Healer at the Royal Court.)

His Juno and the Paycock is well travelled too - after New York, Edinburgh and Jerusalem, it has just completed a tour of Britain during which superlatives have stuck to it like burrs to a cat's tail. 'Tremendous', 'Wonderful', 'Exciting' blaze the signs swinging in the breeze above the Albery Theatre. Dowling, a warm, level-headed man, squirms at this fanfare of praise - 'I don't think any production can ever be considered definitive' - but he is clearly still pleased that his experiment worked.

This production of O'Casey's classic first opened at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, in 1986. It's not easy to convey the impact that it made. 'The opening night of Juno and the Paycock was a terrific night in the theatre,' recalls Finton O'Toole, columnist and former theatre critic of the Irish Times. 'It was a very, very important production - it reopened the possibilities for stuff that had become tedious, by removing layers and layers of cliche.'

Dowling decided to attempt a fresh approach to the play. 'I wanted to avoid sentimentality, and get more of a sense of the social reality of the play. We tried to strip away the layers that had got attached to it - all the stuff about quaint, lovable Irish folk down on their luck, who, if circumstances were different, would be sweet and gentle people. Well, they're not sweet and gentle people at all, they are victims of a civil war. And the reality of the time that the play was written in is that Dublin, in terms of its poverty, was on a par with Calcutta.'

Dowling's production emphasises the poverty and seeks to root the characters. 'I said to the cast on the first day of rehearsal, 'I want us all to treat this play as if we had never seen it before,' ' he says. 'It's extremely difficult for the actors - in a sense it's like English actors approaching a major Shakespearian role. They do so with trepidation.

'Juno often becomes this heroic Mother Ireland figure. But she's not Mother Courage, she's a decent, hardworking, ordinary Irish person. We startled a lot of audiences because they're used to Juno being statuesque, and Joxer being a lovable old rogue.'

That wasn't the only excitement generated by the production. Here was the Gate Theatre taking on traditional Abbey fare - and doing it with great success. Since Dowling had just resigned as artistic director of the Abbey after falling out with the board, he became, in his own words, 'a controversial figure'.

'Well, you know, the internal politics of Irish theatre are byzantine in their complexity. We used to say in the old days that the Abbey provided the bacon and cabbage and the Gate the caviare. Sodom and Begorrah was the other, more scurrilous, phrase.

'I had left the Abbey under difficult circumstances and people assumed that I did the play for political reasons. Nothing could be further from the truth. I started at the Abbey when I was 18 years of age, it's my home - I couldn't do anything to harm the place. It would be like spitting on your mother.'

None the less, many feel that Dowling opened up the field and ruffled complacency. For Finton O'Toole, this is one of his major contributions to Irish drama: 'He certainly brought Irish theatre into a serious, significant era. People forget how bad it could be during the Seventies.'

Dowling started as an actor at the Abbey, but soon moved into directing - 'I was always very bossy'. He counts his experience as an actor as essential training for directing; he is not one for tricksy experimentation.

'You don't expect to be blown out of the water by Joe's productions,' says O'Toole. 'What you will find is subtlety, directness and rigour.'

'He doesn't make you run around pretending to be an ice-cream,' adds Anita Reeves, who plays Juno in the current production. 'He works from the text and he sticks to that. I think the secret of his success is his lack of reverence. I remember I was having a problem one day with Juno and he said, 'You know, O'Casey's stronger influences were Shakespeare, Ibsen and music hall.' And somehow, from him saying that, I understood the scene. It's like turning a key for you.'

Dowling has proved himself equally at home with new plays as with classics, working with Brian Friel, Frank McGuinness and Hugh Leonard, among others.

'I think his most significant production was Faith Healer,' says Finton O'Toole. 'It will be remembered as one of the major Irish plays of the century. And Joe's production went with the fundamentals in a way in which directors are often scared to do. I think it turned the tide in the way Friel is perceived.'

'It's a production I'm enormously proud of,' confesses Dowling. 'Because a lot of people thought it wouldn't work. You can't impose anything on a play like Faith Healer. All you can do is provide the actors with the simplest space and sympathetic lighting. It's a remarkable piece of writing; I don't know any other writer who would have the courage to do it, to tell the same story three times with only one actor on stage each time. When the history of 20th-century Irish theatre comes to be written, we're going to be talking about O'Casey, Synge and Friel.

'The writing is the great strength of Irish drama,' he adds. 'Some people see it as weakness and say Irish theatre should become more visual. But why should we not play to our strengths? We are people who like to talk, we revel in the use of language.'

Once Juno has opened, Dowling will be back on the plane to Canada to work with Shakespeare, magic and an inflatable set. But while others praise and envy his versatility and freedom, at heart Dowling is a reluctant traveller. 'I'd love to run a theatre again,' he says. 'I don't enjoy being a freelance director at all. I really believe in being committed to things. Also I haven't worked with a new writer for some time. It was the heart of what I did at the Abbey and I miss it a lot.'

'Juno and the Paycock' opens tonight at the Albery, London WC2 (071-867 1115)

(Photograph omitted)

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