A river runs through it . . .
'I've always needed water. If there is a river running through a city, I will usually want to walk along it, to me it's like a vein or an artery running through a city. It's really necessary."
So says Olwen Fouréré, the acclaimed actor, writer and theatre artist who will perform Riverrun in Galway and Kilkenny this summer. This latest project sees her creating a theatrical experience through the words of James Joyce.
Olwen has been interested in the performance potential of Finnegans Wake for many years. Joyce wrote it over a period of 15 years, and published it in 1939. It was his final work; he died two years later. It has a reputation for being incomprehensible and unreadable, so what was it that attracted Fouéré to it?
When we chatted during a break from rehearsals this week, Olwen told me that she felt a connection specifically to the voice of the Liffey in Finnegans Wake. She doesn't personally feel that it is a book to be read in a linear fashion and so she has dipped into it from time to time and was interested in certain sections of it.
"I've no interest particularly in the narrative of it, the first time I really had a unified connection to it was through the river," she said. It features the tale of a river flowing in through the heart of the city of Dublin out to meet the ocean in Dublin Bay.
"She, the river, talks about coming from the sky through rain and then forming a river and going out into the ocean."
Olwen saw the performance potential, but put it out of her mind because she didn't want to grapple with Joyce. However, about two years ago she was asked to do a reading for Bloomsday. She read the last page of Finnegans Wake which is where the river joins up to the ocean.
"That was when the idea screamed demandingly to be done, in the middle of a public reading, that moment of knowing it was going to happen," she says. "I started from that moment constructing a performance piece based on the river."
It has been quite a journey to bring this piece to the stage. Olwen was aware the language itself was so rich already that she let herself be led by it but also by the impulse that made her want to do the production in the first place.
Although this piece is adapted, performed and directed by Fouéré, she values the opinions of others and enjoys the collaborative process. She tried out two performances in Paris last February and performed readings in Lyon. She has invited various theatre makers into the rehearsal room over the past year and not so long ago she took on co-director Kellie Hughes, whom she describes as the "perfect person" for this project.
The words 'sound dance' are the perfect words to describe Finnegans Wake for Fouéré as she feels it is a piece beyond meaning. "That's what fascinates me: to be able to communicate this piece so that people can receive this communication without having to comprehend it the way we traditionally do," she says.
Born on the west coast of Ireland of Breton parents, it is clear talking to Olwen that her affection for the Liffey has grown while working on this project. "I was crossing it recently when there was a full moon and I thought it looked fantastic and I found myself saying, 'you're looking really well today Anna'!"
Riverrun can be seen at The Galway Arts Festival – July 18-27 at The Druid Lane Theatre – and The Kilkenny Arts Festival – August 15-18 at The Watergate Theatre. Further performances will be scheduled during The Dublin Theatre Festival.
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