Finnegans Wake was one of those books so many people picked up in their early twenties, browsed through and told themselves they’d think about it. One day. An impenetrable book of voices and characters and unintelligibility – a “sound dance”, as Joyce himself described it.
So it seemed fitting that someone decided to make sense of it and put it to the stage.
Creator Olwen Fouéré says that the idea came from a reading for Bloomsday in Sydney 2011. She read the last page of the book she was obsessed with, Finnegan’s Wake, where the river disappears into the ocean.
The profound reaction in the audience convinced her that her next project must be the voice of the River Liffey, focusing on the final chapter. And it is pretty much all her show: Fouéré is writer, performer and co-director, with Kellie Hughes.
Fouéré is present on the stage from the entrance of the first patron, watching. After 15 minutes, the crowd settles down and she unlaces and removes her shoes, then moves to the mike stand and a pool of light in the centre of the dark and cavernous Playhouse stage.
The first sound that comes from her mouth is more like a bagpipe note drawn out for most of a minute, deeply guttural and arresting. What follows is a tour de force of single-handed acting.
Fouéré’s voice is precise and sinewy, as if no word of Joyce is to be wasted. Her arms begin to move, her hips swivel, she growls, sings, baby-talks, makes sound effects of wind and storm with her mouth. The performance is incredibly impressive, the more so for being almost all centred on the static mic-stand centre-stage.
But the performance really needs to be impressive, for the script is difficult to penetrate. The river rolls along and portrays its dwellers and flotsam and bottom feeders. Each unconnected vignette a handful of stream water flung in your face perhaps, and as quick as you smear it away another appears, then another, often in language unintelligible. There is no time to think about the previous or dwell on theme, but simply to attempt to absorb the next, if you’re lucky.
The effect may be mesmeric, elemental and other-worldly, as reviewers of this show in the UK have maintained. But most of us want some connecting tissue.
I asked half a dozen separate patrons on the way out what percentage of the script they had understood; estimates ranged from five to 20 per cent. All had hoped for something that made more sense of Joyce, something that was easier to listen to than read. But that’s the conundrum with the man and his later works – you simply have to go along for the ride and admire the lateral genius.
For many people, despite the tremendous performance by Olwen Fouéré, the ride just stretches the friendship a little far in this production.
riverrun is being presented at the Playhouse on Friday 27 and Saturday 28 February at 7.30pm, Sunday March 1 at 5pm, Monday March 2 a 2pm and 7.30pm.
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