Friday 15 December 2017

Stage: Operatic homage to Joyce's unfulfilled tenor ambitions

Ministers of Jelly: Ruth McGill in The Dead: An Opera by The Performance Corporation
Ministers of Jelly: Ruth McGill in The Dead: An Opera by The Performance Corporation

Maggie Armstrong

James Joyce and yoga. Now that's a new one. Very modern. Here in the rehearsal room of The Dead: An Opera, anything seems possible, as the four-strong cast slink around in socks and paw-print slippers; one, Ruth McGill, doubled over on the floor doing some seriously yogic stretching.

No harm: for this role, you would surely need to be flexible. In this new operatic version of the long short story at the tail end of Joyce's short story collection, Dubliners, four actors- Ruth, Lisa Lambe, Claire Barrett and Rory Musgrave, plus a string quartet - will be multiplying themselves to play up to 50 characters at the annual Christmas dance in the home of the fictional Misses Morkan. What is more, they have to sing their lines.

Yoga gives way to Joyce gives way to arias. Pages crush as Joycean scripts are consulted, and the four bunch together for a scene. Composer Ellen Cranitch, spectacles on her nose, taps out a few tiny shrill notes on the keyboard. In a wispy voice, Ruth narrates: "Snow was general all over Ireland..." Then, she morphs like jelly into various clucking aunts and witty guests, who make up the ensemble of petty-bourgeois Dubliners in the story.

The party roars on. Rory Musgrave lets forth an invigorating baritone. Lisa and Claire, who recently bought condoms together in The Train, seamlessly become pre-1916 women (Dubliners was published in 1914). Lisa, evidently alert to the limitations faced by four actors playing 50, requests some background noise - "It's like, you want to hear pots and pans. Bish-bash-bosh. You know?" (It's not that Lisa's voice isn't up to it - a singer-songwriter, she's due to tour with the Hothouse Flowers. Ruth is also a singer-songwriter with The Evertides).

Watching cautiously are the two people behind this endeavour, Tom Swift and Jo Mangan. As the Performance Corporation, they have been producing theatre shows since they got married, in 2002. Here Jo is directing, and Tom has written the libretto (or words really) to Ellen's new composition.

The idea came, I learn, when Tom met Ellen at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. Tom, a playwright, was new to opera. His translation of Suzanna's Secret premiered at the Kilkenny Arts Festival this year. In Paris, he and Ellen discovered a shared love of Joyce, and this was not long before the author's works went out of copyright, on January 1, 2012. They wanted to do something on 'The Dead'. But, says Ellen, "everybody in the universe was doing something on Joyce".

So how did they begin theirs? "With a stiff gin," she says, and quickly adds, "Over lots of coffee and Jaffa Cakes."

Tom would go to Ellen's house and they would read the story aloud together, alternating paragraphs. "When you analyse a story like that, the potential for talking bulls**t is fairly broad," says Ellen. "But everything you can think of needs to be put into that pot, and stirred up, and then strained. What was left was the essence of the story, and that dictated where we were to go with it."

And what did that essence look like? Tom: "The human condition, being at times ridiculous and at times very profound."

So there you have it. There have been endless attempts to adapt 'The Dead' - notably John Huston's film starring his daughter Angelica, and Corn Exchange's theatre show of Dubliners. But opera is a new adventure entirely for this much-cherished slice of Joyce. These makers are tapping into the "deep vein of musical references running through the original story."

Joyce, as many people know, once hoped to be a tenor. In his 20s he even came third in a Feis Ceoil. 'The Dead', on my rereading, looks a lot like a homage to the career he never had, a story filled with piano recitals, name-dropping of opera singers, and Irish ballads like 'The Lass of Aughrim'. Dead singers are as present at the party as living people, and old songs provoke memories of other dead people, leading to jealousy, and the story's central drama: a rift between a husband and wife. It's very opera.

You almost wonder, why did no one think of doing this before?

The Dead: An Opera plays at the Project Arts Centre 8 to 12 December

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