Saturday 18 November 2017

A wake of sheer brilliance

Emer O'Kelly

Even if it didn't quite work, it was always going to be an important theatre event. The fact that it works superlatively well makes it a flowing joy of experience. riverrun, Olwen Fouere's adaptation of the last section of Joyce's Finnegans Wake is a triumphant piece of work, allowing an audience to experience Joyce's mischievous and magisterial prance around language, pun, and mysticism as we are supposed to experience it: a great flood of sound washing over us.

Like many people, I have not read the Wake through, but merely dipped into it through time and place, without the energy or commitment to do what we are supposed to do: read it aloud, rise and fall with its rhythms. We should allow ALP and her husband HCE (Here Comes Everybody) to become part of us, drag us into the trials of life that begin when Finnegan is due to be cannibalised at his own funeral at "Howth Castle and environs", and is barely saved. And we should end as we begin, in half sentence as ALP, now herself submerged into her alter ego, Anna Livia Plurabelle, rushes welcomingly and openly to the bay, surrendering herself to a greater cosmos of water and energy, a surviving life force of femaleness.

Dublin is mapped for us along the way in Joyce's unique love-hatred, the voice of ALP's son Shem the Penman becoming his own sometimes despairing voice, aching with desire and frustration, unsure of the nature of love.

Fouere is extraordinary: deliberately androgynous in a silver grey trouser suit, her mane of white-blonde hair dragged back to cascade down her back, she weaves and flows, her body a sinuous marker of the intensity of her sound, so that even her sweat infiltrates the consciousness as the gleam of sunlight on the river's run.

Her voice is symphonic in its variation, a howl from the depths rising to a cascading fountain of slyly chuckling sound. We are victims of Anna Livia Plurabelle, but the flow of her water will sustain us as she carries us along.

Technically a novel, Finnegans Wake is an academic oddity as well as an epic achievement, saved perhaps by the author's rueful irony at the monumental trial that is life: we may as well play, before we are swept out to sea, and he played with the conventions of geography, literature, and language, exhausting himself in a 17-year battle he sometimes thought he might not win. Finnegans Wake was finally published in 1939, and would mark a turning point, not just in Irish writing, but in world literature.

It takes courage to try to put even part of that monumental achievement on stage. It also takes a formidable intelligence and a massive talent. Take a bow, Olwen Fouere, with her company The Emergency Room in co-production with the Galway Arts Festival, where riverrun had its world premiere on Tuesday night.

Kellie Hughes co-directs with Fouere, the eerily perfect music and sound are by Alma Kelliher, and the lighting is by Stephen Dodd.

The production of riverrun will transfer to the Kilkenny Arts Festival and the Dublin Theatre Festival. And it seems likely that it will have an international life: it certainly deserves to.

****

There is an unsettling feeling about Ethan McSweeny's production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Gate in Dublin: that nobody really sat down and talked about the play before settling into rehearsals.

The actors seem to be working in isolation, each to his or her own, occasionally coming together to deliver set pieces, and then drifting again into a singular world. That may be McSweeny's concept ... for good or ill ... but whatever its purpose, it leaves the piece without focus.

The Tennessee Williams classic is, of course, a play about one woman: Blanche DuBois, the alcoholic wreck of a Southern belle driven to prostitution by financial ruin and her almost insatiable desire for much younger men. Williams drops her and her pathetically desperate attempts at redemption and salvation into the hotbed of a New Orleans summer, her sister pregnant, her brutish brother-in-law resentful and vengeful; he plays with her as the personification of ugly desire before pitching her into the pit of her own digging. And along the way he makes his case for desire as the core of our humanity ... "what happens between a man and a woman in the dark" ... our real salvation, as Stella tells her sister.

But as McSweeny directs Lia Williams as Blanche in this production, her over-the-top dominance somehow seems to put her outside the mainstream of interpretation, almost as though she were playing isolated on an apron stage, the rest of the cast almost shadowy figures behind her. Again, it doesn't work: Blanche is horribly, almost evilly close to the lives around her; her drive for survival at all costs is destructive and puts her at the heart of it all, not loftily and dramatically (or even pathetically) outside it.

In addition, it is all played agonisingly slowly, which far from making the flesh crawl in anticipation, merely emphasises the seeming lack of cast collegiality, and makes the minor characters seem co-incidental rather than part of the defining whole.

Despite such glaring faults however, there is a lot to be praised in some of the characterisation. Effectively, Catherine Walker and Denis Conway play a blinder. She is the downtrodden, loyal Stella, refusing defiantly to apologise for yielding to her "lower instincts" by marrying the Polish navvy Stanley, drawn back to the joys of their bed no matter how often he betrays and misuses her.

Walker wrings the last drop of sad credibility from the role. Conway does the same for the well-meaning Mitch, lonely and good-hearted within his macho limitations, initially willing fodder for Blanche's ageing honey-trap.

Garret Lombard fares less well as Stanley, but more from his appearance than anything else: he remains defiantly Irish rather than Polish-American, and despite the contained rage of his performance, there is still a lack of conviction in his violence.

Lee Savage designs, with gimmicky lighting by Paul Keogan: it's more Hammer House of Horror than ironic mardi-gras merriment.

Sunday Independent

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