My goodness, aspiring to greatness

For the Abbey’s new production of Teresa Deevy’s neglected classic, ‘Katie Roche’, the theatre turned to the trailblazing director Caroline Byrne

Shortly before rehearsals for the Abbey's new production of Katie Roche began, its director, Caroline Byrne, gave a good-natured disclaimer. "It's going to be messy, now," she cautioned. This was understandable.

Byrne, an enthusiastic and unpretentious presence, tends to ban spoken text during the early stages of rehearsals, concentrating on what can be revealed by movement and gesture alone. With a few weeks before the opening of Teresa Deevy’s neglected classic from 1936, that physical performance, conceived as a kind of dance, was still being fused with Deevy’s twirling dialogues.

But Byrne meant her warning literally. The place was filthy.

Approaching the rehearsal room on the top corridor of the Abbey building, you could see dirt crushed and caked on the floor. Inside was the source, a large, raised area filled with soft earth, like a giant sand pit, kept luxuriantly dark. This was the stage, and it needed careful tending. At a long table nearby, two stage managers sifted through a batch, like archaeologists delicately searching for fossils. Elaborate dust masks were scattered around the space. “We look like Bane when we wear them,” Byrne laughs.


It fits with a production that comes with a sense of unearthing something long buried. Deevy's play has had significant revivals before, most recently in 1994 when it propelled Derbhle Crotty into her first leading role at the Abbey as the mercurial Katie. Yet the play remains unfairly obscured, the last of Deevy's works to be staged by the National Theatre, which later retreated from the outspoken playwright at the end of the 1930s. Deevy, once the heir apparent to Sean O'Casey, was marginalised as the Abbey became more reactionary, more conservative, more male.

In recent years, access and interest has grown, aided by the Mint Theatre in New York, which began a retrospective of her work in 2010, and the development of the Teresa Deevy Archive in NUI Maynooth. When, in 2015, Waking The Feminists encouraged fresh appraisals of neglected women writers from history, Deevy was an obvious contender.

So too is Byrne, a young Irish director based in London, who in a few short years has emerged as an imaginative director of classic plays and new dramas. Shortly after her widely-hailed production of The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre last year, which Byrne had conceived as a 1916 Rising-infused production with an all-Irish cast, she was asked to direct Deevy's drama.

Katie is a young Irish woman with dreams of greatness – whether as a saint, a wife or a lover – and her tragedy (as Ibsen said of Hedda Gabler) is to exist at a time when a woman cannot be herself. Byrne was initially embarrassed to admit she didn't know the play. The shame is that so few do. But it allowed her to come to it with a fresh perspective.

“At the start, I always feel like a detective,” she says, “trying to investigate what the writer’s trying to say. I guess I was also trying to find my personal relationship with the play before I engage in a wider conversation around it. I think that’s vital before you even agree to do a job.”

Katie Roche can make that a challenge. "Even inside single sentences, she makes major shifts," says Byrne. To allow people to see the character and the play clearly has required some judicious pruning. Working with the playwright Morna Regan, the Abbey's new version eliminates two minor characters and trims the drama down to about 100 minutes, performed without interval. "We went straight into what the heart of the story was," says Byrne, "to keep her journey as exact as possible, or as exciting as possible. I like a really sealed-off experience in the theatre."

The image of a woman sealed-off has an evocative hold over the production. When Byrne consulted with Prof Chris Morash, who has edited a volume on Deevy's theatre, he suggested an image to her that seemed to encapsulate the playwright's life. Photographed in a recording booth, watching the actors who were performing one of her radio plays in the post-Abbey years, she cuts a poignant figure.

Deevy became deaf in her early 20s, as a consequence of Ménière’s disease, and was sent to London by her family to learn how to lip-read. At the theatre, actors enunciated clearly, so the theatre provided her with useful practice, igniting her passion for the artform. In the image, Deevy appears slightly cut off from the world. “She was always behind glass,” says Byrne.

To that end, the production's interventions are intended to make the play truer to itself. Katie Roche has a conventional three-act structure and realistic setting, yet the play keeps tipping towards something more expressionistic, as Deevy's late work did more explicitly. With Regan's redraft, the text has become leaner, and Byrne has stripped her staging down to its bare essentials, a malleable minimalism. "I've made it very difficult for the actors," she says, with some apology, "because they're very exposed on stage. For a lot of our production the stage is just the marble slab of a table. I've used material that I feel reflects her as a person: glass, soil and marble."

On Byrne’s stage, the glass is represented as a guillotine, slicing closer and closer through the production; the soil is all-encompassing (“this really rich, fertile and dirty thing – which she is”) and the marble emerges from the earth as symbol of both desired grandeur and religious repression: “It’s an altar, it’s a bed, it’s a meat slab.”

Byrne, a constant sketcher, takes an imagistic approach from the earliest moments of a production: designers find her annoying, she admits. But if a play stimulates images in her mind, she knows she’s on the right track.

“I really love composition. It’s my favourite thing about directing: looking at how people are organised in space. And how somebody’s experience can be told visually, bypassing language. Language can reduce something, where I feel that theatre is about opening things up, seeing things that we have not seen before – or that we have not been allowed to see.”

Katie Roche, a young woman who constantly aspires to “greatness”, is stymied by a culture that insists on a much more deferential idea of “goodness”. Rather than be the great woman of her fantasy, she is encouraged by a number of men to be a good girl.

In the Abbey rehearsal room, the magnetic actor Caoilfhionn Dunne performs Katie as an otherworldly figure rising up from the clay, uncoiling and prowling the stage like a strange creature, holding a tea cup filled with earth. Playing her older suitor, Sean Campion regards her with a kind of stilled awe. Byrne's rehearsal room is quiet and focused: she gets up frequently, sometimes whispering individual notes to the performers. Dressed in black, like Dunne, and holding a teacup of her own, at one point Byrne kneels down to make another suggestion, and the performer and director form an exact mirror image. Could Byrne see herself in Katie Roche, this figure in the glass?

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Byrne says. “I was quite a shy child. My father died when I was very young, when I was four. I felt I had this little secret that I wanted to be in theatre. My mother always encouraged me to do exactly what I wanted. But it always felt like something I wanted to express that I was afraid to do as well.

"There's something about fulfilling your creative potential, which I think Katie Roche really wants to do. She doesn't have a way of expressing herself. If she was born in another era, where she would've had an opportunity to work, she could've been a contender. She could've been great."

Katie Roche is at the Abbey Theatre until September 23.