Saturday 23 November 2019

Katie Roche: because the shrew must go on

  • Katie Roche, Abbey Theatre, Dublin
  • Beryl and Eejit, Theatre Upstairs, Eden Quay, Dublin
Sean Campion, Caoilfhionn Dunne and Siobhan McSweeney in 'Katie Roche' at the Abbey. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Sean Campion, Caoilfhionn Dunne and Siobhan McSweeney in 'Katie Roche' at the Abbey. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Emer O'Kelly

Emer O'Kelly finds that a post-modern approach to a classic can work well.

Teresa Deevy's Katie Roche is an extraordinary play. Written in 1936, it posited in Catholic Ireland the theory that being "illegitimate" might have been the "fault" of your mother; certainly the "fault" of your father if he took off on hearing the news, but not at all the fault of the "illegitimate" child.

Nearly 30 years later, John B Keane wrote of a society in which an "illegitimate" girl, Sive, was told that being sold to a rapacious old man while in love with a young man was "more than she deserved". Nothing had changed; the child was still being stigmatised.

But while Katie Roche is threatened with the same fate as Sive, she is saved by a genuine if flawed love. Stanislaus Gregg has loved her since her early girlhood, but fled from her flawed pedigree. But his staid love was too strong, and he returns to his home to woo the young Katie, who has been working as housemaid for his maiden sister. The difference here is that Katie also loves him.

But she wants to love in her own way, wilfully and strong-mindedly, while living her youth to its full extent.

Maddened by the restraints and decorum that surround her, she defiantly flaunts a young neighbour (with whom she has long flirted) before the eyes of her husband.

Young Michael, though, is the classic "whited sepulchre" - it is he rather than the prosperous and gentle Stanislaus who thinks Katie is "no better than she should be". He would have been a very broken reed had she turned in truth to him.

The play becomes a Taming of the Shrew for rural Ireland in the years before World War II, full of the mocking cliches that Deevy saw all round her, and which she undertook to expose, both subversively and gently.

She got away without having her work banned, but her particular morality never exactly took off, despite the active encouragement and approval of both George Bernard Shaw and Denis Johnston. But then the Catholic Church didn't like them either.

It has long been my theory that Katie Roche survived the outraged eye of Mother Church because it is a comedy, albeit subtle and satirical. Shakespeare's shrew is tamed against her will; Deevy's adapts rather than submits, and thus saves her own independent soul. And of course, her love for the staid Stanislaus has never been in question.

The play was written in the era of expressionism, and Caroline Byrne's new production for the Abbey (truncated, but fairly expertly so) is delivered in that style, on an open stage designed in post-modern style by Joanna Satcher and lit by Paul Keogan; the opening mud and mire in which Katie is trapped adapts throughout to regulated panels of possible escape and freedom.

Caoilfhionn Dunne and Sean Campion head the cast as Katie and Stanislaus, and are touchingly and superbly matched. Good support comes from Kevin Creedon as the feckless Michael, Donal O'Kelly as Reuben, the wandering deus-ex-machina, and Siobhan McSweeney as the gentle, spinster-ish Amelia.


Beryl (the Peril) and Eejit are sisters who live together in the house they presume was left to them by their vicious old mother. We know she was vicious because, although she's dead and gone, and had suffered from dementia, she was the one who nicknamed them from their given names of Pearl and Edith. And their late father was happy to be equally beastly.

Now Beryl, awaiting her pension, suffers from agoraphobia, while Eejit keeps the household going through writing romantic novels for Mills & Boon. Until their solicitor writes to tell them that the former gardener, Miguel from Spain, who was bedding more than the plants, is actually the legatee.

Cue a black comedy that's a cross between Arsenic and Old Lace and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? And it's actually jolly funny when you skip over gaps in credibility.

Skipping those yawning gaps would be easier with both better acting and better, much slicker direction.

The latter, by Eamonn B Shanahan, is lumpish, while Helen Roche's Beryl is unconvincing as an ageing neurotic. Even comedy requires conviction.

Billie Traynor fares infinitely better as Eejit; presumably as the author of the piece, she is well under its skin.

Beryl and Eejit is a co-production between Poppin and DoItYerself, playing at Theatre Upstairs at Lanigan's Bar on Eden Quay in Dublin.

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