The sun is streaming in through the grand Georgian windows of the Gate Theatre green room, but, despite a jovial atmosphere, there is a chill in the corner where Sebastian Barry and Owen Roe are sitting on a couch, discussing the Gate Theatre’s remount of Barry’s 1995 play, The Steward of Christendom. As they share their experiences working in Irish theatre over the past 40 years, you can almost feel the presence of the ghosts of the theatre listening in.
The Steward of Christendom had its Irish premiere at the Gate 27 years ago, shortly after the play opened in London, with Donal McCann in the title role. McCann’s performance is one that exists in theatrical memory almost like a myth. “It is like the Loch Ness monster,” Barry jokes. “Some people say they saw; other people think ‘maybe it doesn’t exist.’”
However, Barry remembers McCann’s performance, the writing of the play and its rehearsal period vividly. Barry wrote much of The Steward of Christendom in the basement of David Norris’s house on North Great Georges Street in the months after becoming a father for the first time. He and his wife, Ali, “were living on tuppence ha’penny”, he remembers, and “the twins had just started sleeping through the night, so I thought, ‘that’s it, I have to write, I may never get a chance again.’”
The play – which centres on a father’s end-of-life regrets – came quickly, and when it was taken on by the Royal Court and went into rehearsals it was further refined. “Donal was a brilliant editor,” Barry says. “He tested everything, and if something didn’t sound good in his mouth, it would go.” So by the time The Steward of Christendom premiered on the Royal Court stage, Barry had fulfilled his duty to its characters and themes perfectly.
Barry says the reception was “literally life-changing, not because it made me think I was the best thing since sliced bread, but because it meant we could afford to live”. He remembers McCann’s uncommon kindness, as well as his electric presence in the complex role of Thomas Dunne, as the elderly policeman troubled by his conflicted loyalties during the emergence of the Irish Free State. “When we were rehearsing in London and I couldn’t afford to eat, he would slip me a couple of quid for McDonald’s,” he laughs.
For many years, Barry did not think of the play at all. “It would occasionally come up, but I thought, ‘Oh, you can always just do a tremendous production when I am long gone and my kids can go and see it and weep at their old dad’s play.’ It wasn’t that I thought, ‘Oh, Donal has done it and I don’t want anyone else to do it,’ but there was no urgency for me.” However, when Barry gave a lecture on the Gate stage in 2020 as part of his tenure as Laureate for Irish Fiction, the experience of working on the play and with McCann came back again suddenly and vividly. “I was standing four feet from where Donal sat in the bed [as Thomas Dunne], and when I was giving the lecture I thought I could hear him behind me saying, ‘Hurry up, for God’s sake, hurry up!’”
A few months later, the Gate’s artistic director Selina Cartmell approached Barry about staging a rehearsed reading of the play in Dublin Castle, to mark the 100th year anniversary of the handover of Dublin Castle to Michael Collins in 1922 following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Roe was cast in the role of Dunne. Barry says he “had not read the play in years, but I sat with my son, Toby, up in the balcony and my father had just died in January and I hadn’t seen him for 10 years, and I was nervous. I thought, ‘What will my son make of this?’ but also, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could say it was great 25 years ago, and that was fine, that was enough’.
“But when you are crying at your own play, and I was really weeping my way through it, it was a bit disreputable, and to have another great jazz actor doing it, well, I felt it was an extraordinary privilege in a way, and I think the audience could feel that too, and suddenly it wasn’t so terrifying, and it felt like a joyful suggestion that we would do a full production.”
Roe, who takes on the role associated with McCann for this fully realised production on the Gate Theatre stage, did not see the original The Steward of Christendom all those years ago. He was on stage at the other end of O’Connell Street, playing John Proctor in The Crucible at the Abbey. He had also recently become a father and “it was really affecting the way I saw the play”.
However, Roe heard friends, colleagues, critics, raving about McCann’s towering performance. He sought the play out when it was published, and over the years has returned to the script again and again, “thinking, ‘My God, it’s a crime that no one is speaking these words, these speeches.’ People are always asking you when you’re an actor, especially when you get older, ‘Oh, what do you want to do?’ And you say, ‘Oh yes, Lear, etc etc.’ The usual stuff. But this was the play I always wanted to do. And then it wasn’t available, and I just thought that was a crime.” Barry interjects, almost surprised by the news. “Yes, well, it wasn’t that it wasn’t available. I don’t know about that. But you could say there is such a thing as celestial casting, the Gods of the theatre looking down. Really, I have been waiting 25 years for Owen to be old enough to do it.”
This is not the first time that Barry and Roe have worked together. In 1990, Roe starred in a Barry debut, Prayers of Sherkin, a three-act Abbey main-stage production, with Caroline FitzGerald directing a cast of 12. As they reminisce, they take turns name-checking everyone involved: a young Brendan Gleeson and Phelim Drew, and Irish stage stalwart Eamonn Kelly.
Barry was “in and out of rehearsals every day,” he recalls. “I loved it.” Roe, meanwhile, playing Eoghan O’Driscoll, loved “having the writer in the room. It was a privilege. Do you remember?” he turns and asks, addressing Barry directly. “I asked you to give me the number of someone on Sherkin so I could get the accent right and you gave me this number and said, ‘Be gentle with them.’ So anyway, I called the number and the phone rang and when someone answered there was rock music blaring in the background and I was shouting down the phone, ‘Is so and so there?’
And the fella shouted back ‘Wha?’ ‘I said, ‘Is so and so there?’, shouting louder. ‘No she’s not here!’ So I said, shouted, ‘right! I’ll ring again later, thank you.’ Well, I didn’t ring back, but I tell you, whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t that.”
The pair start reminiscing joyfully then about Joan O’Hara, Barry’s mother, a legend of Irish theatre in her own right, who also performed in the play. After Prayers of Sherkin, Roe went on to work with her on a revival of Hugh Leonard’s Da at the Olympia Theatre. “Oh, she scared us out of our wits doing that show!” he exclaims. “She’d be in the wings saying, ‘Ooh, it’s cold! There must be ghosts.’”
Barry interjects: “And if the ghosts weren’t there, she’d be holding a seance in the dressing room to summon them.” O’Hara believed “all the actors that ever worked in the theatre, are all there watching” when you are on stage, Barry explains, and he does too. “In an old house like this,” he says, gesturing towards the Gate auditorium, “it is so full of ghosts, listening to us, my mother included.”
McCann also starred in that production of Da. It was the only time Roe shared a stage with him and Roe remembers a gift McCann gave him when his daughter was born during the run, a candle that still sits in a cabinet in his living room today. “He gave you something!”, Barry says astonished. “Oh, that means something. Donal was incapable of a false approach. There was no chit-chat, no easy talk. But if he respected you, he would shine the light of what he was on you. So I do feel he wouldn’t be allowing this [production] to happen unless he thought [Owen] was worth the candle.”
Roe plans to bring the taper to his dressing room when the production begins; a talisman of luck for what is a challenging, if rewarding, role. “It still belongs to him, the play,” Roe says. “But I suppose us doing it now opens the door for other people to do it again in the future.” And they both believe he will be watching. As Barry concludes “I do think everything is happening always at the same time, so we are just joining all the actors who are doing all the plays at this moment in time, we are just joining the continuum.”
The Steward of Christendom runs at the Gate Theatre from July 21st to September 3rd. It tours to The Everyman, Cork, from September 6th-10th, and the Lime Tree, Limerick, September 13th-17th