As the Royal Court prepares to stage a "greatest hits" season in the West End, Stephen Daldry also gives over his main house to one of the most triumphant recent productions originally seen in the studio Theatre Upstairs. The Steward Of Christendom has lost none of its evident power and wonder on transferring to the larger stage.
Sebastian Barry's play is an attempt to rediscover his own great-grandfather Thomas Dunne, the last Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police – as the officer in charge of Dublin Castle (and the man who handed its keep over to Michael Collins after home rule was granted), Dunne was the epitome of the hated "Castle Catholic".
By locating Dunne, aged 76 in the 1930s, in Baltinglass County Home and "mad as a stonemason", Barry establishes from the first his memory-play conventions. Beginning at the end is a most hackneyed bio-dramatic device, but Dunne's opening speech, with its sinewy synthesis of Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme and A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, gives notice of the glistening poetry with which Barry's writing interweaves past and present, tortured delusion and grim lucidity.
Donal McCann – last seen on the Royal Court stage as a magnetic protagonist in Friel's The Faith Healer – gives a monumental performance, at once bravura and fiercely disciplined. Clad in ragged, spattered long-johns, his head and face covered with the same close, grey stubble, a picture of utter humiliation and tormented by his sporadic realisation of it, McCann's Thomas Dunne has something of the Sweeney about him... and also of the Lear, as his memories keep looping back to domestic scenes with his three motherless daughters in Dublin and after his retirement to his home turf of Co. Wicklow.
Yet when these reveries come upon him – when the grimy, unevenly plastered walls of Julian McGowan's institutional set grow translucent with the golden light of those fled times – McCann transforms himself into an upright patriarch: neither a traitor to Ireland nor a hero to himself, but simply an upright, honourable man doing his best by his masters and his family.
This design happily counterbalances Max Stafford-Clark's direction which, though sensitive, seems more concerned with holding on to Dunne's squalid present than letting his past take flight when appropriate. Stafford-Clark's approach, however, bears fruit in the closing scenes, when we firstly discover that Dunne's madness has been brought on by no single great trauma but simply an accumulation of personal and political griefs, then are presented with a tale told in imagination to his dead son, illustrating with heart-rending simplicity "the mercy of fathers".
Barry's play, and Donal McCann's performance, are among the glories of the year. After a largely disappointing Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, The Steward Of Christendom will revive the most jaded and comatose of sensibilities.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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