by Teresa Deevy
The Abbey Theatre, Dublin
16 September 2017
The beauty of any dramatic piece is that it can mean many things to different people. A play can also change and acquire new meaning over the years, so an audience watching Teresa Deevy’s Katie Roche at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 2017 would undoubtedly have a different perspective on the work than an audiences who saw it first performed at the Abbey in 1936. And yet revived for this new production the essence of the play remains the same, as does its nature to still mean different things to different people.
For some, Katie Roche would merely be a play about a woman’s place in rural Ireland, and in many ways it’s clear that those themes and the balance of power in marriage relationships and in wider society are in many respects still very much the same. Katie Roche is also about origins and identity, about wanting to understand one’s place in the world and then have the freedom to be able to choose who you want to be. It’s about not accepting that you are what you are born into, as Michael Maguire reminds Katie in the play, effectively telling her that she will be whatever society determines her to be and there’s no escaping it.
Katie Roche is having none of that. She may be an uneducated housekeeper for Amelia Gregg, employed by the family despite her being born out of wedlock to an unknown father, but her position in the household isn’t of her own choosing and there’s nothing humble about her acceptance of it. In fact, proud Katie is surprised to find that has prospects. Stanislaus Gregg, the master of the family, an architect and house designer, has come back to the family home and has professed a wish to marry Katie, and Reuben – an old vagrant respected in the community for his mystic wisdom – has suggested that Katie’s father might actually have origins in the nobility.
Katie’s dilemma however is whether to accept this opportunity to ‘rise above her station’ or be true to who she really is. She’s fairly sure however that she can do better than settle for Michael Maguire. He’s a handsome enough boy and sweet on her, but he gives Katie the impression that he is doing her a favour by showing interest in a girl of her low position and reputation, and she has already rejected his advances Stan, on the other hand, promises Katie respectability, but he is quite a bit older than Katie, quite straight-laced and rather intolerant of the unpredictable side of Katie’s wild and clearly untameable nature.
The choices for Katie then are somewhat limited and there is little room for her to find or express her own identity. The only other option for Katie is the convent, as it would have been for many women at that point in time in women in rural Ireland. Born in Waterford in 1894 and becoming deaf at a young age, this is something that Teresa Deevy would have certainly recognised and the place of women in this society is consequently a very strong theme in the drama. The expression of such sentiments would certainly have struck a chord in 1930s’ Ireland, and it’s interesting that Deevy would fall out of favour with the Abbey Theatre soon after this play, the deaf playwright subsequently making her career as a writer of radio dramas.
The period of the writing of Katie Roche is significant in other ways, coinciding with the political events that were leading in the direction of the creation of the Irish Republic. Although it’s not overtly referenced in the play or in this new production, there is undoubtedly something of the question of self-determination and breaking away from an authority that is repressive of one’s true nature in Katie’s uncomfortable marriage to her absent husband, Stan. Such matters might have meant more to an audience in 1936, but they are unlikely to carry the same weight with an audience in 2017, even if the political questions of self-determination and national identity are back on the table in regards to Brexit, Europe and the status of the border with Northern Ireland.
If the political element of the play might not be so relevant, it nonetheless brings to the surface a deeper undercurrent that exerts a strong presence throughout the play, for ultimately Katie Roche is about innocence. It’s not so much naivety, as purity; it’s about recognising and striving to retain the essence of what is good about oneself in the face of change and the realities of life. It’s about coming to terms with the disappointments that must come with trying to move forward and progress, whether as an individual or as a society. Change might be for the better and it might not, and Katie, looking for the last time at the river and the land at the end of the play, knows she is leaving behind a past that she will never return to. Where she was born however is something that is deep-rooted in her soul, defining who she is, and it’s an awareness of this essence and the belief that it will remain with her, that gives Katie the determination to face the future with strength and optimism.
To get that fully across requires some strength of character in the principal role and Caoilfhionn Dunne is quite extraordinary in how she expresses those glorious little details of personality, strength and innocence, while at the same time give some indication of a more universal and contemporary image of Katie as a woman and an Irish woman. There’s a simple directness to the Deevy’s dialogues that permit a wide range of interpretations, a simple “I will” capable of being a statement of intent, acquiescence or defiance, all depending on the inflection of the voice, and with the right inflection it can even be all at once. Caroline Byrne’s fluid, expressionist direction leaves all those glorious options that Katie Roche is capable of open there for it to mean many different things all at the same time to different people. What should be clear to everyone who sees this insightful and compelling new revival of Katie Roche however is just how important a landmark play it is in Irish theatre and how it still manages to capture something of the essence of us all within it.
Sean Campion – Stanislaus Gregg
Kevin Creedon – Michael Maguire
Donal O’Kelly – Reuben
Caoilfhionn Dunne – Katie Roche
Dylan Kennedy – Jo Mahony
Siobhan McSweeney – Amelia
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