Theatre review: In Search of Owen Roe

by **


Arcane ancestor-stories, amongst the most intriguing elements of self-identity, offer rich pickings for dramatists. And this play, written and performed by Vanessa O’Neill, in which she uncovers her Irish roots, certainly digs deep.

Voices in the head and insomnia and a restless consciousness take us back to the 17th-century when Owen Roe O’Neill fought an armed resistance against English rule. One of the most famous antecedents of the dynasty, the commander of the Ulster Army was remembered two hundred years after his death.

It is, however, her great-grandfather, who shares that weighty name eons later, whose life Vanessa desires to explore.

Only, she finds that the body of the man is interred under a bare patch of earth, unmarked, beside his 13-year-old daughter, while everybody else in the family has tombstones to their graves. Why, nobody appears to know.

In this crisp, 60-minute, one-woman show, the playwright tells of how she set out on her mission that has since involved poring over countless documents and trekking many times to her native Shamrock over the past 18 years.

Glynis Angell directs this compelling production that gives us in part a theatrical version of the inside of Vanessa’s mind. Sounds of her thoughts come out of the air (in a haunting design by Darious Kedros) about our heads.

The stage is dark and intimate, with a sense of discontent, furnished by a map of Ireland on the one side, and the other a family tree that fruits as the narrative progresses with names.

At the centre, though, of this brooding agitation and persistent search is Vanessa’s father slipping into dementia; and in his struggle for freedom and for dignity she recognises a mirror to her own fighting spirit, and indeed her son’s emerging quality of independent thinking.

Albeit subtle, Vanessa’s scalpel is uncompromising. She peels away one layer of time after another, alluding to idiosyncracies and strength of character that seem to have passed down the generations like breathing heritage.

At its best, the writing combines poetry and soaring images, as it frames the action with ghostly figures that blur the boundary between the dead and living.

But it is Vanessa switching effortlessly into and out of myriad roles — her father, the great-grandmother, various Irish men she meets at the pub, her son, cousins, to name a few — using artistic unities to fuse past and present that this staging really shines.

Yet, despite its acuity and tenderness, some parallels drawn across the genealogy feel somewhat elbowed into the account, and strains credulity.

Still, as revelations unfold and we come to understand perhaps why the title character was buried without a stone, and to speculate at his decision to calling himself Gary, In Search of Owen Roe, indubitably satisfies.

It is one of those memorable works that leaves you wondering about your own roots and their secrets and about the same vein that shapes lives today as they shaped them then.