The Steward of Christendom – Gate Theatre – Review
Runs until Saturday, September 3rd 2022
Set in 1932, this play tells the story of Thomas Dunne (Owen Roe). He was once the Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police but is now an old man. He is confined to the local county home in Baltinglass, due to his failing mental faculties. He is a man who lived through great change, with the Easter Rising and later the emergence of a new state. As the Chief Superintendent, he is part of the old regime and did not embrace the change that was happening around him. The play follows Thomas in the county home as he is haunted by ghosts from the past, living out memories from yesteryear while being visited by the current staff at the facility, along with his family. These memories trouble the old man, who cannot tell what is real from what is imagined.
This play was written by Sebastian Barry and first performed in 1995, in the Royal Court before travelling to the Gate theatre. This first production starred Donal McCann in the main role of Thomas, and it is widely remembered as one of McCann’s finest performances. The main character Thomas Dunne is based on Barry’s own great-grandfather.
A rehearsed reading of this play, with Owen Roe as Thomas Dunne, was performed in January of this year in Dublin Castle. This performance was to celebrate the centenary of the handover of Dublin Castle to Michael Collins, following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 16th of January, 1922. While this was only six months ago, Covid certs were required to gain access and everyone wore masks throughout. It was clear from that reading that the production was already well established. Whether this was due to the skill of the actors or a lengthy rehearsal period behind the scenes is hard to tell, but it felt like the latter. While last night was opening night of this production, it’s been a long time coming!
It is interesting that this play is staged at the same time as Translations at the Abbey, as they are two works that explore our complex relationship with our neighbouring island. Thomas Dunne represents a type of Catholic that has been largely written out of history. A so-called ‘Castle Catholic’, at one point he says he loves his King and he loves his country, and from his perspective, it is possible to do both. Ireland has changed radically in the past hundred years but it is important not to forget the complexity of the past.
The set is relatively straightforward, with a bed on some side of the stage and a table and chair on the other. A collection of windows of different styles, all with frosted glass, hang above the heads of the actors and at the back of the set. These sheets of glass allow the actors to appear like ghostly visions as they enter and leave the stage.
While Owen Roe is the focal point, the rest of the cast do justice to their relatively small parts. Niamh McCann gives maternal warmth and charm to the character of Mrs O’Dea. Smith, played by Cillian Ó Gairbhí, adds a rare combination of violence and humour, and somehow pulls it off. Thomas’ three daughters Maud, Annie and Dolly (played by Eavan Gaffney, Julie Crowe and Caroline Menton) hit the right notes of exasperation and love towards their failing father, showing how their relationships have changed over the years.
The director of this piece is Louise Lowe, the artistic director of Anu Productions. She now directs inside a theatre as often as she does outside, and is just as skilled in both settings. The play revolves around the character of Thomas Dunne, and the performance of Owen Roe is the backbone of the production. He is on stage throughout and has a variety of monologues, while also interacting with the rest of the cast. The play is often compared to King Lear, as a tale of an old man who is losing his faculties. Roe captures the sadness and fear at the core of the character. He was once a man filled with his own self-importance but it is now ebbing away, leaving him a shadow of his former self. This intense and demanding performance is the heart of this remarkable piece of theatre.
Director: Louise Lowe
Writer: Sebastian Barry
Set Designer: Paul Wills
Costume Designer: Joan O’Clery
Lighting Designer: Paul Keogan
Composer and Sound Designer: Philip Stewart
Assistant Director: Samantha Cade
Thomas Dunne: Owen Roe
Smith: Cillian Ó Gairbhí
Mrs O’Dea: Niamh McCann
Maud: Eavan Gaffney
Annie: Julie Crowe
Young Recruit: Cillian Lenaghan
Dolly: Caroline Menton
Matt: Darragh Shannon
Willie: Oscar Gilligan
Willie: Ruben Lawless Cotter
Willie: Simon Maughan