THE STEWARD OF CHRISTENDOM
Gate Theatre, Dublin
Somewhere in the mysterious psychiatric facility of the Gate Theatre’s play, set in the early years of a new Irish State, is someone haunted by the past. “You bloody mad old man,” says Thomas (a destitute figure in a union suit, played by a tremendous Owen Roe), tearing himself from childhood memories of bucolic Co Wicklow fields. His whole world seems to have crashed down around him.
The ambition of Sebastian Barry’s playscript is to take us to the wrong side of history. In the bullying taunts of a hospital orderly, bearing a grudge in Cillian Ó Gairbhí's tense performance, we learn that Thomas had been the chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police until the handover of Dublin Castle to the Irish government. That puts him in a tricky position. As an agent of the crown who baton-charged workers during the 1913 lockout, he is standing in the way of a nation’s progress.
Roe is no stranger to playing male minds sent out of tune, from the madness of King Lear to the dementia of Florian Zeller’s patriarch in The Father. It is the kind of turbulence that can easily come across as abrupt or gibberish, but there is a careful attention to detail here, as Thomas, even when transported back to a childlike state, still makes slyly ironic comebacks to his keepers. (“You can’t wear those drawers forever,” pleads a seamstress, nicely played by Niamh McCann. “I won’t live forever,” he says.)
Other familiar echoes are to be found in the revolving door of visitors that follows, in Louise Lowe’s spectral production. Thomas’s daughters, whose lives are upended by the changed political establishment, will sway between maternal protectiveness and youthful adventure, brutal confessions and divided loyalties, as if we were watching a mash-up of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Lear’s daughters. One of them, on a visit to the facility, washes over with hurt in Julie Crowe’s performance, in the torment of failing to be recognised in her ailing father’s eyes.
If the play doesn’t quite flow, it’s because the plot’s reminiscences aren’t as much triggered as they are randomly scheduled. Lowe’s meticulous direction, combined with Roe’s subtle intonation and the persuasive cues of Philip Stewart’s compositions, all work hard to create a logic for this arbitrary combination of memories, but they strain under the recollections’ length and floridity. (While some will appreciate the details of a predominantly rural 19th century, the “wild clover”, the “smell of honey” and the “glittered heather” may irk others as a fairy-tale idyll.)
Barry’s play is a portrait of fatherhood above all else, as, while rummaging through Ireland’s revolutionary period, we see the tumult of a family shattered by war and forsaken by the new Irish State. In seeing someone who rhapsodises about Queen Victoria but who can also break down in tears over the assassination of Michael Collins, we are made consider the complications of history, while a nation quick to judge is asked to follow a father’s surprise example. It can show forgiveness.