Review: Spellbinding rendering of Joyce classic
Theatre: The Dead, Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin
The Feast of the Epiphany provides the ideal setting for possibly James Joyce's greatest short story, the closing chapter of his collection Dubliners. This tale of personal revelation has often been brought to life in different forms, memorably as John Huston's final film and most recently in Ireland as an opera. In this new production, it is pared back to its origins.
Presented here by the Dublin Theatre Festival, this production of The Dead was originally delivered by Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire) in London's Globe Theatre as part of a series described as 'Jackanory for adults'.
Gillen doesn't try to act out the characters with silly voices, he gently gives vocal clues to their characters and they never become caricatures. Instead, he and director Conor McPherson wisely leave almost everything to Joyce's most glorious words. Almost everything, as there is the most sensitively judged musical accompaniment composed and performed by pianist Feargal Murray.
As Murray musically sets the scene on a grand piano, Gillen sits down at a heavy Regency desk, both men dressed in formal white tie. The text is propped up on a reading stand, but Gillen recites sections of it unaided. There is a sense of ceremony, but nothing to distract us from this story of Gabriel Conroy and his personal unravelling.
We experience with him his transformation from a man carried high by societal respect and admiration to a self-obsessive snarling with bitter jealousy as he realises that he will never experience great love like his wife Gretta has, that he will never shine bright, that instead he will fade into grey shadow.
This is Joyce at his most candid, he was 23 when he wrote this and it has several autobiographical strands, which add to that sense of honesty, these are real emotions laid bare. And we connect with them through this production.
Murray delicately enhances mood as he leads us into and out of scenes. Gillen is a most perceptive narrator. And what keeps us utterly spellbound - and we are - is this devastatingly beautiful story.