The Steward of Christendom The Gate
When a colossus crashes, the sound is mighty. Because a colossus is created as much in its own mind as in the minds of those who watch the fall.
In the world as seen from Whitehall in London, the chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police may be small fry indeed. But Thomas Dunne in Sebastian Barry’s The Steward of Christendom – at times witless, starstruck by the mighty even when in possession of his senses – is deafened by the crash of his own fall when he stands at the gates of Dublin Castle to see Michael Collins accept its authority on behalf of the new Irish State.
Thomas, whose life has been devoted to service of the crown, puts away his ceremonial sword and retires to the tiny, poor family farm in the Wicklow hills. But the colossus can’t be put together again: the reverberations echo into the new world where the devoted Thomas is despised and mocked, everything he believed in flung upon a dungheap… at times literally.
Barry has mined his own family history repeatedly throughout his long career. In novels and plays, he has dug deep into myriad psyches, always with unlimited compassion and a recognisable fellow feeling for the suffering that goes beyond the explicable.
In Ireland, our history dismisses, even despises what became of the losing side, with few people left to explain, much less identify with and justify a set of political beliefs based on being proudly Irish, but from within the tradition of monarchy and Empire. Most of them were little people, without power or privilege.
Gently, often with genius, Barry, many of whose forebears represented that tradition, has quietly excavated their flag from the dungheap with narratives that bring us the stories of the real, small, bewildered people who in the early 1920s said: “But…”
And that one word is the summation of Dunne. His pension inadequate to keep him and his last daughter Annie on a pitiful farm, frequently sinking into dangerously manic bouts of fierce rage, he is consigned to the County Home, subject to kindness but also to indignity. His “luxuries” are only what a shilling per week spared from Annie’s home budget will provide in the brave new Ireland.
His pride brings him back to better days: being presented to King Edward during the Royal Visit, his wife Cissie at his side. Later, she died in childbirth.
Willie, the boy soldier, his only son (not tall enough to follow his father into the DMP), dead on the Western Front. All that is left of him is a wistful, beauteous letter of memory and longing, creased and hidden in his father’s belongings.
Its echoes are enough to move even Smith, the County Home Guardian who carries a deep hatred for the old regime.
The Steward of Christendom is overwhelming in its tragedy, a tiny microcosm that is the whole of humanity laid bare in a lake of suffering, from the centre of which it’s hard to see the shore. The exquisite language provides the ripples that offer a little hope.
When Donal McCann embodied the role of Dunne a quarter of a century ago under Max Stafford-Clark’s direction, the overwhelming emotion was one of bewilderment. In the new production at The Gate in Dublin, Owen Roe brings us rage.
His Dunne is not going quietly into that good night; he longs in his bewildered mind to stay in the world that is peopled by his ghosts. It’s an extraordinary, devastating performance, dominant and triumphal in subduing Louise Lowe’s almost belligerently forthright direction.
Perhaps with a determination to give youth its chance, she has cast inexperienced actors in the roles of the Dunne daughters, and the performances (Julie Crowe, Eavan Gaffney and Caroline Menton) rather lack subtlety. But Niamh McCann as Mrs O’Dea and Cillian Ó Gairbhí as the Guardian are splendid foils for Roe.
Darragh Shannon and Cillian Lenaghan complete the cast, with young choristers Oscar Gilligan, Ruben Lawless Cotter and Simon Maughan as the ghostly Willie.
Paul Wills has created a set of institutional windows that manages to be soaring while still emphasising soulless enclosure, and it is superbly, movingly lit by Paul Keogan. The sound design and music are by Philip Stewart.
Until September 3, before touring to Everyman Cork and Lime Tree Limerick