James Joyce’s Dubliners has been good to director Annie Ryan. Her Corn Exchange 2012 production at the Gaiety Theatre was a hit of that year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. A decade later, she is revisiting the stories, at the invitation of Smock Alley Theatre, to create a new version as the centrepiece of the theatre’s Bloomsday celebrations.
She also used the Joyce stories as the basis for an end-of-year show for a graduating class at the Lir Academy in 2019. Three of those graduates are in the present show, and the cast of eight is on the youthful side, reflecting the energy of the young Joyce living in exile: “He wrote all of these stories when he was only in his twenties,” she says. “They are written with a ferocious contempt for the mother country.”
Ryan has great compassion for these Dubliners: “The characters are so unhappy, but the way they suffer is so contemporary. They are suffering from ‘comparison mind’, feeling belittled, paralysed by their own sense of cowardice and by what other people think. They come to a moment of ‘Joycean epiphany’, this moment of truth, but they see themselves in such a negative light and are often really affected by the oppression that surrounds them. So the epiphanies aren’t really true as such, but keeping the characters in a small place. If that sounds very Californian, which it might, it was actually something Joyce talked about when using the term ‘ironic compassion’.”
Ryan is originally from Chicago. She came to Dublin as a student, to Trinity College where she met her husband, the writer Michael West, her co-adapter on this project. They live in Dublin with their two young adult children.
Ryan founded the Corn Exchange company in the 1990s and it became known for expressive work in the commedia dell’arte mode: a very stylised high-energy form of theatre, with much material delivered facing the audience, and often employing dramatic face paint. “It’s a very demonstrative, embodied style,” says Ryan. The 2012 production of Dubliners was in this mode, but the new show is not. “That style has a very full-on yang energy and I’m a woman in my fifties now and I’m more interested in nuance.” The commedia style remains “part of the vocabulary of the company’s work, it’s a great teaching tool. It really pushes the actor to their ultimate level.”
The Corn Exchange was flying high a decade ago, winning the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards for Best Production and Best Director for Freefall in 2010. Around this time, there was a radical restructuring of the Arts Council’s approach to theatre funding, and the company’s grant was halved. It continued to function, however. A number of significant shows were created, including A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, adapted from Eimear McBride’s novel. “We kept going like that for 10 years, and I think I got a bit depressed really because I wanted to be creating work with an ensemble,” Ryan says. “It was a funny downward spiral.” Another drastic cut came in 2019, when the company was essentially defunded by the Arts Council.
“It’s still a little raw,” she says. “I’m in this interesting transition whereby I’d been a salaried arts worker for 20 years, and now I am no longer that. The company is really just me as a sole trader. Over a long career, society has an idea that there is a linear trajectory, but it’s never linear, as every woman knows and every adult knows, we work in spirals and cycles.”
Soon after the company was defunded, an encounter with senior actor Olwen Fouéré on the street helped regalvanise Ryan, by encouraging her to see her position in a more positive light.
“I’m now moving into this freelance reality after a very long singular devotion to Corn Exchange. I’ve been focusing on screen. I was very lucky to shadow director Lenny Abrahamson on Normal People. It was a joy to watch him work.”
She describes Abrahamson’s leadership style as “effortless and graceful”. She has filmed her very first “tiny little short” that has yet to be edited. She is also involved with a company of Tokyo-based veteran actors who are performing the Corn Exchange show Dublin by Lamplight, so she has been teaching them commedia techniques online. She has other irons in the fire in both film and theatre.
“And that connects back to what we all do to ourselves, which is use the negativity that surrounds us to sabotage our own potential. Everyone is a ‘Dubliner’, everyone has the potential to stop themselves from really flourishing,” she says, “and the small space of Smock Alley will help the audience connect to the intimacy and interiority of those moments. Onward!”
‘Dubliners’ is in Smock Alley Theatre from June 9 to 24