Issue 186 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1995 Copyright Socialist Review




A cautionary tale

No longer king of the castle

An old man, Thomas Dunne, is tormented by his memories as the past invades the bare asylum room in Wicklow that is the present. The Steward of Christendom is a personal story set in historic times, and though the play is centred on Thomas's feelings of loss and regrets about his family, the contrast between his past role and present predicament makes his story all the more poignant.
For Thomas was the last Catholic head of the Dublin metropolitan police before the signing of the treaty with Britain which introduced partition. He was a proud and loyal subject of queen and empire whose world was shattered when he had to hand over his beloved Dublin Castle to the Nationalist leader Michael Collins.
As his confused mind relives those times, we see the bent over, troubled asylum inmate transformed onstage into the stiff backed police officer he had once been. Yet the 40 years of service have left him a grim legacy. His young son--too short for the police--joined the British army and died in the trenches of the First World War. Of his three daughters, only one still visits, and he is mocked for being on the side of the imperialist enemy.
Donal McCann gives a towering performance as Thomas and though the story of a 'castle Catholic' who gloried and prospered during British rule may seem an unlikely angle on the period, the sense of dislocation and historic change reflected through this troubled family makes this a powerful and moving play.
This is the fifth in a series of plays by Sebastian Barry based on members of his own family. Socialist Review talked to him about his great grandfather, the signing of peace treaties, and Michael Collins.

Judith Orr
The Steward of Christendom plays at the Royal Court, London and in Dublin, Brighton and Liverpool in association with Out of Joint

Prophet of doom

Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov in a version by Frank McGuinness

Chekhov: sympathy with the old life

Between the old order dying and the new one being born, a variety of morbid symptoms appear, argued the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. He could have been describing this and the other plays of the Russian playwright Chekhov.
Uncle Vanya, subtitled 'scenes from rural life', is set on a Russian country estate at the end of the 19th century. Chekhov portrays the rural landowners, representatives of a class which is dying.
Vanya is an intelligent and sensitive man whose life has passed him by. He has worked the estate for the benefit of his hated brother in law the professor, Serebryakov, revered by the family but a worthless academic. 'Not one page of his work will survive him', says Vanya. But now for Vanya too 'the fire has gone out' because of 'living in this backwater'.
Everyone--Vanya, the doctor Astrov with his forestry schemes, the professor, the women Sonya and Elena who are both unhappy in love--finds their lives unfulfilled and disappointing. At the end Vanya and Sonya return to running the estate. Work is seen as their salvation.
Yet we know that even this isn't possible. The antiquated methods of working the land have led to tiny rates of return on the estates, a discontented peasantry and frustration among those like Astrov who have a more visionary view.
Only six years after Chekhov wrote Uncle Vanya, those same peasants rose up in revolution against their landlords, and in less than 20 years two revolutions swept this way of life away forever.
Chekhov has much sympathy for the old life even while he portrays it as doomed. The professor's answer to low rates of profit is to sell up and invest in capital. His wife Elena remarks that 'it's only in modern novels that people have time for the peasants'. In contrast, representatives of the old values like Vanya and Sonya do have time for the peasants, but have no answer to their poverty.
This is an Irish Russian Chekhov, translated with beautiful dialogue by the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness and produced by the Derry theatre company Field Day. The frustrations of an Irish country estate of the same period are easy to imagine--so much so that references to vodka or noodles almost seem out of place.
The play is extremely well acted, especially by Stephen Rea in the title role who combines sarcasm with self pity to produce a Vanya who is both very funny and very sad. This production very successfully conveys a social sense of the 'idiocy of rural life' while at the same time giving the play a sense of urgency and dynamism sometimes missing from productions of Chekhov.
Lindsey German
Plays at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, London

Flawed at the core

After Easter
by Anne Devlin

Greta is a Northern Irish woman living in Oxford who has been committed to a mental hospital suffering from a breakdown. Her unfaithful husband is seeking to gain custody of their children, one of them a recently born son. Her quest to rediscover her identity involves a return to her Irish hearth and a protracted confrontation with her mother, two sisters and brother. It is punctuated with interrupted dreams and semi-mystical visions. This family drama is played out against the backdrop of her father's heart attack and subsequent death.
In the programme notes Anne Devlin writes that her play is psychological, not political, despite being set in a contemporary Ireland before the ceasefire and despite the reference in its title to the famous poem by Yeats about the Easter Rising. The play is widely acclaimed, however, I found it disappointing and fundamentally flawed.
The problem lies in the separation of the psychological and the political. The search for identity can't simply be resolved in a trawl through the darker recesses of family history and relationships. It is inevitably shaped by the political and historical circumstances that individuals find themselves in. Yet Devlin only uses politics to pin labels on characters. Greta's husband, who does not appear in the play, is almost dismissively referred to as a 'Marxist', as if the term were self explanatory. The father, whose anti-clericalism is pivotal to the family's history, is simply a 'Democrat' and the mother and two sisters are both stereotypical characters. The political conflict in Northern Ireland is a backdrop, not an integral part of the way that histories are shaped.
These deficiencies are a pity because there is a good deal of comic potential in the family exchanges, particularly in the scenes between the mother and her daughter, Aoife.
Despite the disavowal of political content, there is at the play's heart a very real political core. The solutions for her seem to reside in the family.
The raw material of the play should provide a rich seam for a playwright. This play doesn't do it justice.
Shaun Doherty
Plays at the Barbican, London

A tangled web

by Sam Shepard

Much of Simpatico was written while Shepard drove his open-top Dodge around Highway 40 and you do get a sense that although the characters' lives are played out in a confined space, if you just lift your eyes you can see a whole new horizon.
The plot revolves around Carter and Vinnie who pulled off a horse racing scam and had to blackmail a leading race official to cover their tracks. Now, 15 years down the line Carter is a successful Kentucky horse breeder while Vinnie is living a hand to mouth existence in a cheap apartment.
Vinnie still has the negatives that can expose the sexual blackmail he and Carter used against the ex race official, Simms. But as the story progresses you realise that Vinnie doesn't want anything so simple as revenge.
All the main characters have become embroiled in a life of lies. Yet this doesn't mean, as some reviewers have concluded, that the play contains no truths. Vinnie, Carter and Simms all make different choices when it comes to living in the past.
Carter drinks and tries to pretend that he can rise above it all. Vinnie constructs elaborate false personalities to protect himself from the truth. But it is Simms who probably comes off the best by building on the experience to create himself a new life which at least allows him to remain close to the race track.
Shepard tackles the question of loss head on. Simms has had to rebuild his shattered life from scratch while Vinnie, the man who set him up, lost both his lover and his Buick (a particularly bitter blow) to his former partner.
The play is intensely intricate but well worth the effort Shepard demands. It's a great antidote to the sort of postmodernist theatrical angst that says all attempts to understand the past or shape the future are doomed to failure. Simms laments the passing of films like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon. 'Who was it who decided to do away with all the plots?'
But even Simms never loses hope or humour. When Vinnie's wonderfully dippy girlfriend complains, 'I never realised it was so... complex', Simms just stares back and says, 'It's not. It's our vain efforts that make it that way.'
Andrea Butcher
Plays at the Royal Court London

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