Who exactly is Katie Roche? For a second, this young housekeeper appears to be preparing for celibate life in a convent. Minutes later, she’s smitten with her peer Michael and wants to go to a dance with him. And if these mixed signals aren’t hard enough to decipher, her past is wrapped in total mystery. A stranger turns up and reveals the protagonist is descended from aristocracy (“the great house beyond”). Katie is as improbable as a myth, which may well be the point of Teresa Deevy’s uncanny drama from 1936.
In this radical revival by the Abbey Theatre, director Caroline Byrne forges Deevy’s chimeric play into a history of oppression. Katie, glowing with new nobility, turns down Michael for the older and more reputable Stanislaus. Sadly, a stultifying and affectionless marriage isn’t much of a choice in the 1930s, when Ireland destined its women to be homemakers.
Byrne and dramaturg Morna Regan both ensure that this version of Deevy’s play pushes against that fate. Satisfyingly, when Stanislaus instructs Katie to do the housework, it’s hard to see how this is anything other than an impossible (or improbable) task. The cottage around the couple has been incinerated as part of Joanna Scother’s stunningly surreal design. Through the dirt remains, Caoilfhionn Dunne’s vital Katie vigorously weaves the play together. It’s an impossibly erratic role but Dunne finds beautiful resilience in her retreats and returns, like a moth enchanted to a flame.
In this world, cruelty is an ordinary a part of Sean Campion’s restrained Stanislaus. His bossing and controlling is so casual a modern audience may well laugh. But the production has come prepared for this response; Amelia (an excellent Siobhan McSweeney), Katie’s adoptive mother and Stanislaus’s sister, makes sure we’re all in on the joke. Byrne knows that Amelia has more grit than Katie. When she’s bullied by her brother to re-examine her unmarried life, we can see the play’s teeth glaring.
With the benefit of hindsight, this production is able to spell out the oppressions hinted at in Deevy’s play, whether in the form of a St. Brigid’s Cross or in the holy man Reuben, who is truly loathsome thanks to Donal O’Kelly’s wicked performance. “Humiliation is what she needs,” he says, bringing to mind the horrors of Magdalene Ireland. With its surrealist displays, this domestic drama plays out like an anxiety dream for the nation.
But because it’s so disjointed, I can’t imagine how Deevy’s play can ever find its natural rhythm. Maybe that’s why Byrne plays it on a knife’s edge, nudged constantly along by Ray Harman’s music, leaping perilously at outbursts of violence, while discreet moments sometimes lose their friction. Yet in a rare believable minute, Dunne’s Katie, stung into self-loathing, denies herself a chance at the dance. It’s hard to watch. Why is Katie Roche so unreal to us? Because she always belonged to a greater world than ours.
Katie Roche is on until 23 September 2017 at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Click here for more details.