Monday 18 December 2017

Stage: Fouéré, psychic dogs and accepting our island's revolutionary past

Facing the truth: Fouéré returns to the stage in a new collaboration with French playwright Laurent Gaudé. Photo: Luca Truffarelli
Facing the truth: Fouéré returns to the stage in a new collaboration with French playwright Laurent Gaudé. Photo: Luca Truffarelli

Chris McCormack

A few years ago, Olwen Fouéré was in Paris performing a French-language adaptation of novels by Roddy Doyle. She came across an article on a newly published play, the title of which caught her eye: Sodome, ma douce. She later translated the name, and the play, into English: Sodome, my Love.

"It's a wonderful juxtaposition," she says, smiling. The city destroyed in the Book of Genesis, of course, is synonymous with sexual 'crimes against nature'.

"I read the blurb and it described a woman buried in salt for thousands of years. She comes to life and tells her story of the destruction of Sodom, which is completely different from the biblical story. It's about cultural genocide really."

Fouéré quickly tracked down a copy, and phoned for the rights the next day.

In 2010, she gave Sodome its world première in Dublin, in a co-production between her company, TheEmergencyRoom, and Rough Magic. Its playwright, Laurent Gaudé, has stayed in touch ever since.

"On one of my visits to Paris, we were out together and he said 'I loved the way our artistic paths crossed. If you were interested, I would love to write a play for you'. Of course I was interested; it's such an honour for someone to say that to you." That work, Danse, Morob, opened in Project Arts Centre this week.

Fouéré's performances are often marked by a strange intensity. Whether as a babbling vessel for the Liffey in her Finnegans Wake-based work riverrun, or stalking someone as Death in a red dress and heels in an adaptation of José Saramago's novel Death at Intervals, her grave eyes are likely to make laser-point contact with the audience.

But there's little intimidating about the Fouéré sitting across from me, often nodding agreeably, her voice a soft murmur yet crystal clear. Performing since 1976, she's enjoyed mainstream success in bigger houses as well as pushing at the boundaries of theatre with contemporary outfits such as Operating Theatre, which she co-founded with the composer Roger Doyle in 1980.

"It was that moment of recognition," she says, casting back to her first meeting with Doyle. "Oh good, somehow I'm from a neighbouring planet." The company went dormant in the 1980s but had a resurgence in the 2000s, at which time it collaborated with director Selina Cartmell ("There was a feeling that her imagination was vibrating on a level that I wanted to meet.")

When Operating Theatre faded away again, Fouéré set up TheEmergencyRoom ("a necessary space"), which has emerged as something of a production hub for adapting maddeningly modernist works of literature. It has presented, with co-producer Galway International Arts Festival, riverrun as well as an adaptation of the minimalist prose piece Lessness by Samuel Beckett.

That makes Gaudé the only living writer in the company's ranks. He's certainly well decorated, having won the Prix Goncourt in 2004 - a high award in French literature. "He makes his living as a novelist," Fouéré says. "But I think theatre is his big passion."

As an accomplished writer of magical realist plays, he certainly isn't short on devices. His 1997 work Onysos the Furious reimagined the Greek God of wine, Dionysious, as a beggar on a New York City subway platform. In Sodome, my Love, the fall of Sodom was seen not as an act of divine retribution but of exploitation, with shades of a misogynist culture and the HIV epidemic.

"Legacy is a big thing for Laurent. How the past comes into the present, and perhaps the future, too. But also, the very porous membrane between the living and the dead."

Starting with the idea of a woman who carries her father on her back, Gaudé wrote Danse, Morob having sought out echoes of revolutionary action in Ireland, as well as touching on Fouéré's own history.

"He wove into that image the legacy of someone who had been a militant of some kind, involved in some kind of political struggle. Laurent became very interested in the no wash protest, the degree of debasement that those men had to go through, who stayed with it to prove their point. He was fascinated that men would go through that with the strength of their belief.

"And, knowing a little about my family background - my father was a military Breton who had been in prison - he mixed that in as well. What is the legacy that these things leave? The children carry that. The grandchildren carry that."

That leaves Fouéré set to make her most explicitly political work in some time. She believes the island remains unresolved in accepting aspects of its revolutionary past, such as the 1981 hunger strike. But Gaudé seems to have found a wry metaphor for facing the truth: the woman is led by a pack of dogs.

"Obviously, we don't have a pack of dogs, and even if we did, it probably wouldn't be right," says Fouéré. Instead, she and co-director Emma Martin (who found wonderful canine shapes in her 2012 dance work Dogs) are making the most of a physically deft cast including Fouéré, Judith Roddy and Emmanuel Obeya.

"They're her psychic dogs, those unresolved questions you don't want to deal with. You can't get away from that; they'll keep scratching away."

Danse, Morob is at Project Arts Centre until Saturday, January 28

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