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  • Chris O'Rourke

The Steward of Christendom

Owen Roe in The Steward of Christendom. Image by Agata Stoinska


Mad dogs and Englishmen. Or Irish Catholics loyal to the English crown. Isn't it better to put us out of their untrustworthy misery? In Sebastian Barry's much vaunted The Steward of Christendom, first produced in 1995, the unspoken complexities of Anglo-Irish identity are conveyed through the rise and fall of Thomas Dunne. Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police in 1922 when the keys of Dublin Castle were handed over to Michael Collins. A man whose only son died in the First World War fighting for the British, like many Irish did. Who, like Lear, suffers madness and battles with his three daughters. Whose men killed Irish strikers during the 1913 Lockout. A devotee of Queen Victoria looking to retire to the Wicklow hills, he spends his final years locked away in an institution suffering dementia and lamenting Collins's murder. A man inspired by Sebastian Barry's own great grandfather.

Owen Roe and Niamh McCann in The Steward of Christendom. Image by Agata Stoinska

In Barry's unstable tale, a quivering web of fragile connections just about holds firm. Establishing rifts more than unity between history, the treatment of those with dementia, and the family dynamics between Thomas and his three daughters. The spinsterish hunchback Annie (Julie Crowe), the flirtatious good time girl Dolly (Caroline Menton), and the middle of the road Maud (Eavan Gaffney), each a mouthpiece for conflicting attitudes in an emerging post colonial Ireland. Each loving their father, in their way, with only one, showing a flair for martyrdom, prepared to try take care of him. Even as none of them are really relevant, serving less as characters so much as walk-ons in Thomas's thoughts. For The Steward of Christendom is all about Thomas, being essentially a lengthy monologue with regular interruptions.

Evan Gaffney, Caroline Menton and Julie Crowe in The Steward of Christendom. Image by Agata Stoinska

Like Thomas, Barry's script is often enthralled by the sound of its own voice. Economy not being of its essence, it serves up as many delights as lengthy lulls, reinforced by awkwardly lingering entrances and exits. As with On Blueberry Hill, Barry stages his tale in a space of forced confinement. Yet under Louise Lowe's impeccable direction staging suggests less a physical space so much as a psychological one. The space always Thomas's, even when interrupted by the kindly Mrs O'Dea (Niamh McCann) or the cruel orderly Smith (Cillian Ó Gairbhí) who also inhabit it in real time. Paul Wills's floating, rectangular windows, all sharp corners and smeared glass, suggest cellars where secrets, or victims, are interred alive. Semi-lit basements you peer in to trying to fathom what might lurk there; Paul Keogan's muddy lights like glimpsed ghosts in the shadows. Joan O'Clery's costuming a masterclass in simplicity. The power of the uniform offset by Thomas in soiled and stained long johns, suggesting an oversized baby grow, in which man and child converge.

Owen Roe in The Steward of Christendom. Image by Agata Stoinska

In one of her rare incursions into conventionally staged theatre, Lowe is not satisfied with the audience simply seeing. Instead she creates an absorbing, discomfiting and deeply moving experience. Mindful that, despite its historical credentials, The Steward of Christendom is less history, or even story, so much as a character study. In which Thomas is magnificently realised in a tour de force performance by Owen Roe. In truth, the show is all Roe. No one onstage comes close to matching him. Which is not to belittle their talent, but rather to say Thomas Dunne is a role Roe was born to play. Many might try it, few will succeed. Even less will soar. Under Lowe's direction Roe leaves everyone earthbound as he streaks across the stratosphere. Leaving you awed and humbled by a truly great performance.

The Steward of Christendom marks the end of an era, being the final production under Selina Cartmell's tenure as Artistic Director of The Gate. Talk about exiting in style. Here's wishing Cartmell, and incumbent Artistic Director, Róisín McBrinn, and a new Executive Director, Colm O'Callaghan, every success for the future.

The Steward of Christendom by Sebastian Barry, directed by Louise Lowe, runs at The Gate Theatre until September 3. Transferring to the Everyman, Cork, and Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick later in September.

For more information, visit The Gate Theatre


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