A Woman Framed
Expressionism is not for everyone. With its stark, brooding, overwhelming sets, haunting scores and shadowed lighting, many associate it with a style of horror film popular in the early days of cinema. Indeed, some argue it’s a dated style better suited to the screen, having enjoyed its best days, theatrically and cinematically, back in the early decades of the 20th century. On stage, it can sometimes make for tough going. Its often anti-realist characters can create a sense of emotional disconnect, and its frequently slow and broody pacing can feel like even its pauses have pauses. Yet, ideologically at least, it’s a form that is arguably suited to Teresa’s Deevy’s, 1936 play “Katie Roche.” Director Caroline Byrne, along with dramaturg, Morna Regan, certainly appears to think so.
A young, uneducated housemaid, born in scandal and on the verge of resigning herself to a life in a nunnery, Katie Roche finds salvation in a marriage proposal from the much older Stanislaus. An architect with money issues, marriage makes pragmatic sense to Stanislaus allowing him, and his unmarried sister, Amelia, to remain in the family home with Katie helping out. Even if Katie is something of a wild child, with eyes for the local lad about town, Michael, she can soon be trained to see the error of her ways and learn from her betters how to be better. Something Katie, in principle, seems perfectly willing to try, seeing herself meant for greater things. Yet marry in haste, repent in leisure. A battle of wills ensues in which the poor, uncivilized, Katie, and the wealthy, civilized Stanislaus go head to head. He wants her to behave. She wants. In the end they who have the power may win, but can those without power learn to survive?
Displaying a vehement resistance to bourgeois values and authority, and a protagonist who suffers deeply as a result of restrictive social norms and values, Deevy’s “Katie Roche” meets a lot of expressionist criteria. Indeed, Roche’s world is built from a disharmony of opposites - the civilized and the wild, youth and age, men and women – in which the condition of women in Irish society is interrogated. Particularly their rights, options and opportunities, or lack thereof, which makes “Katie Roche” particularly relevant today. Byrne’s expressionist frame certainly foregrounds many of these issues and yields some visually impressive moments in the process. Yet it does so at something of a cost. If the expressionist frame improves focus on ideas, it loses something in the process as a sense of a woman and her struggle gives way to a sense of resignation. It also risks Katie, as well as others, being reduced from dramatic characters to often beautifully realized, expressionistic devices.
Under Byrne’s direction, action takes place in a meta-theatrical space of dirt and marble, of brushed pathways and on-stage costume changes. Context is warped by an expressionist set suggesting an ephemeral sense of time and place, freeing Deevy’s script from its historical and local specificity. Set and costume designer, Joanna Scotcher, establishes a funereally dark, drab and dreary landscape, a place of dirt and sterility, where life exists primarily off stage, as is often the case with Deevy, or is glimpsed momentarily as young men playfully run through the dirt. Yet there is often a sense of disconnect between the set and the text, with the latters sense of struggle being lost to the formers sense of overwhelming hopelessness, which crushes all in its path. Onstage, Katie might argue and complain, but she rarely seems to fight, her spirit seeming to have had all hope sapped away by resignation. Absent too is any real sense of a community against which Katie rebels. Instead we have a group of people alone together, disconnected from one another, in a love hate relationship with their own disconnectedness. Indeed, the sense of richness and resistance in Katie’s character is often best conveyed by a stunning soundtrack by Ray Harman, informed by an exquisite physical vocabulary developed by movement director Eddie Kay in conjunction with Caoilfhionn Dunne.
Sean Campion as Stanislaus, a man terrified of being seen to have been disrespected, or cuckolded, by his wife, might convey patriarchal privilege, but his Stanislaus lacks any real sense of authority or power, always running when the fight comes to him. Power is conveyed beautifully by Donal O’Kelly as the druid-like Reuben, who embraces the limiting, expressionistic restrictions imposed on his secondary character with relish. Kevin Creedon as the young pup Michael, along with Dylan Kennedy as his side kick Jo, deliver well as big kids playing at being wild and free. As does Siobhan McSweeney as the subdued Amelia, who exercises a strong, yet subtle sense of determination, adding terrific depth and texture to Deevy’s feminist interrogation. Caoilfhionn Dunne’s impetuous and childlike Katie, is visually mesmerizing, tip toeing and dancing, articulating a rich physical vocabulary throughout. Never quite sure what she wants, Dunne’s Katie is a child trapped in a woman’s, corpse-like body, resigned to playing at being all grown up in a land of fathers and father figures.
As a dramatist, Deevy might not always write strictly as a naturalist, yet her “Katie Roche” isn’t strictly expressionist in the same way something like Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal is. If Byrne recognizes Deevy’s ideas as vital, and her expressionist frame honours that, the resulting theatrical experience is not always as vital. Partially because the expressionist frame overwhelms the script at times, seeming to force it into places it doesn’t seem to fit so well. Yet where it does fit, it crafts some exquisite moments, as when Stanislaus and Katie argue over tea. Here some genuine magic occurs and everything converges into moments of sheer beauty. But too often the experience feels funereal, devoid of hope or a real sense of struggle. If in “Katie Roche” Deevy highlights a young woman’s freedom being shackled and sacrificed on the altar of male privilege, for some, Byrne’s interpretation could appear to sacrifice something of "Katie Roche's" spirit on the altar of expressionism. Others, however, will see it as injecting new blood into an old classic. Either way, one suspects that the ever-experimental Deevy would have been impressed.
“Katie Roche” by Teresa Deevy, runs at The Abbey Theatre until September 23rd
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre