Katie Roche: Ambitions of greatness for a woman in search of character

In 1930s rural Ireland, Katie Roche is a young woman with notions. In 2017, this revival of Teresa Deevy’s neglected classic has clearer aims

Katie Roche

Abbey Theatre, Dublin


Katie Roche is a young woman with notions. Born out of wedlock, and not yet 20, she is the begrudging servant of a Waterford home, with many other ideas.

She might enter the local convent, on a career arc towards sainthood. But she also imagines herself the lover of a young local man, Michael. Or she might marry the older, long absent Stan, an architect and owner of the house, who awkwardly proposes within minutes of his arrival.

When a wandering mystic, Reuben (Donal O'Kelly), admits she actually comes from grand stock, she draws herself up like a duchess. "I'm done with humble…" says Caoilfhionn Dunne's mercurial Katie, shrugging off the shackles of 1930s Ireland. "Didn't I always know I have greatness in me."

The Abbey's new production of Katie Roche is similar in its ambition but has a much clearer sense of how to achieve it. Director Caroline Byrne and dramaturg Morna Regan whittle down Teresa Deevy's long-neglected play from 1936, itself a wayward piece of naturalism that longs to be something more expressionist, and realise Deevy's ideas in striking new ways. On a set strewn with earth, Katie springs up from the ground, letting it shower down around her, and Dunne's uninhibited physical performance immediately suggests a woman in a suspended state of childhood, somewhere between restless innocence and unbridled potential.

The tragedy of the play is in how severely narrow those possibilities really are. Sean Campion, as Stan, regards Katie as a flighty spirit to be possessed, and as Katie moves into a stifling dependency, the stage is brushed clean to reveal a smooth surface of white marble, and a table that rises up like a sacrificial altar.

Byrne's reverence is for the shape of contemporary European theatre. There are the rising geometries of Joanna Scotcher's set: it features a backdrop of huge glass panes descending slowly like a guillotine blade, while later delivering cascades of rain and licks of flame. It resembles the minimalist aesthetic and maximal devices of directors Thomas Ostermeier or Ivo van Hove.

Those aren’t arbitrary associations: in Deevy’s play you can trace intriguing links between Irish drama and European expressions, a line from Synge through Ibsen, where a parable of self-creation meets a patriarchal society where a woman cannot be herself.

Those pressures result in Katie’s fractured identity: she is infuriatingly changeable. Dunne’s compelling performance tries to make her cohere as a young woman suspended in adolescence: barefoot, she leaps and twists, harrumphs, cajoles and resists. But Katie has no fixed sense of herself, and Deevy gives us little sense of Katie: either of her potential or what she stands to lose.

If Katie cannot be a muse to Stan, or his creative partner, too coarse to be his equal, but too grand to enjoy a local dance, she finally choses to be a tormentor: “Did you hear that?” she crows at one point. “Michael is upset on account of me.”

The play finally pushes Katie from her fantasies to a stoic kind of obedience, humbling her ideas of greatness to make her merely "good" instead. That she has no real character to lose makes the tragedy mostly academic, but the conviction of the telling has a grandeur that Katie can't attain. Runs unti Sept 23rd

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture