Beyond the call of duty

Theatre: Steward of Christendom Royal Court, London
Click to follow
Steward of Christendom

Royal Court, London

"He is never going to be a comfortable ancestor," writes the dramatist Sebastian Barry of the great grandfather he has placed centre stage in The . Thomas Dunne was the last chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police before it was disbanded after independence in 1922. He was also a Catholic. In the roll call of Great Irish Patriots, a papist who has responsibility for Dublin Castle, the very epicentre of British rule, is scarcely going to take pride of place.

But Barry's play is not out to rehabilitate his forebear as a public figure; rather, it wants to rediscover the sensitive, fallible, remorseful human being whose fate it was to live out such contradictions.

It makes contact with Dunne in the mid-Thirties, by which time he was an elderly inmate of the Baltinglass County Home. The Spartan grimness of this establishment is itself an ironic comment on his career loyalty since it bespeaks a miserable pension. A shrunken figure clad in grime- caked long johns, and with something in his manner of the cracked, chastened quality of King Lear after the storm, Donal McCann's wonderfully moving Dunne relives moments from his past with the help of revenants who wander in through the scoured, suddenly translucent walls of his cell.

We see this long-standing widower being helped into immaculate uniform by his three daughters for the symbolic transfer of power at the castle in 1922; on the farm in Wicklow to which he retires, we watch him waving his sword around in hysterical panic at the thought that he might be a marked man in the subsequent civil unrest. As the "order" to which he dedicated his life violently disintegrates, we observe how his daughters react; one emigrating to Ohio, another retreating into nervous illness. Periodically, a young boy in a gold-splotched trench coat visits him, a childhood incarnation of the son who died in the Great War serving with the Dublin Rifles.

Max Stafford-Clark's production (for the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs in association with Out of Joint) captures the poetry, humour and pain of the piece without reaching for false pathos, though there may be those who feel that the lonely, extreme perspective from which the play looks at this life rigs the audience's feelings.

Perhaps it's no accident that the play ends with a beautiful story of the sudden "mercy of fathers", and of Dunne's being let off the hook as a child for protecting a favourite dog who had killed a sheep. Does this induce you to give the adult Dunne the benefit of the doubt, too, since his actions were also the consequence of a devotion to something rather than hatred? The demonstrates, it could be said, the mercy of great grandsons.

n Details on page 26

Paul Taylor