Since the expiry of copyright on James Joyce’s works at the tail-end of 2011, adaptations of Dubliners, Ulysses, The Dead, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man have vied for the attention of Irish theatre audiences. Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s notoriously impenetrable novel, has been conspicuously absent. Premiered at this year’s Galway Arts Festival, Olwen Fouéré’s riverrun is the first attempt to grapple with depicting Joyce’s esoteric final work on an Irish stage. This innovative co-production is both infused with the anarchic spirit of its source and underscores the enormous challenges inherent in a theatrical portrayal of (or a part of) Finnegans Wake.
riverrun is not an adaptation of the novel. Instead, Fouéré (who wrote and performs the text) explores one section of Finnegans Wake: ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’. In it, the character of ALP, transfigured as the River Liffey, traces her journey from falling rain droplets that swell into a river and flow through the city before disappearing into the bay at dawn. ALP’s monologue closes and opens Finnegans Wake: her final, dislocated words spill from the book’s last page into its first line to form a full sentence. Rather than presenting a conventional plot, riverrun – like the novel from which it’s fashioned – weaves neologisms and portmanteau words into a sustained stream of consciousness.
As we enter the auditorium, Fouéré’s unnamed character waits a little inside the door. Wearing a charcoal suit, gold shoes, and with her mane of grey hair extending all the way down her back, Fouéré stands poised with her hands behind her back – as though gently acknowledging our presence.
The strikingly authentic set evokes an abandoned, Victorian-era tenement; grey, burnt-out and decaying. A wall, at stage right, pockmarked by red brick hints at the interior, while the dilapidated exterior upstage comprises large windows, some broken. The black floor space is almost empty, apart from a sprinkling of salt at stage right and an erect, rectangular microphone, twisted out of shape, downstage. A sneaking microphone cable delineates the border between the land and the river.
When rivierrun opens, Fouéré sways slightly before bending down and, with calm deliberation, removes one shoe and then the other. She then steps across the cable – into the water – and walks to the microphone. As a soft light settles on Fouéré, she enunciates the rustle of the river and this gradually coalesces with Alma Kelliher’s rising, gurgling soundscape. This sets the tone for the production, signalling how individual episodes within riverrun will be demarcated.
With chameleon-like dexterity, Fouéré channels a barrage of voices and languages into a fragmented narrative doused with linguistic acrobatics and tenacious experimentation. Phrases or expressions that seem to promise recognition are gleefully subverted: “Bring us this day our mailing bag”, “I beg your burden”, “A nation once a game”. Attempting to thread the unfolding action into anything resembling a storyline is fruitless.
While this may be inevitable in any take on Finnegans Wake, the effect is perplexing. Occasionally, watching riverrun feels a little like being cornered in a library by an isolated, preternaturally intelligent child determined to impress you with their Herculean wordplay. Other times, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a postmodern reimagining of Waiting for Godot where Lucky is allowed to express his entire tirade without violent interruption by Estragon, Vladimir and Pozzo.
Yet, riverrun is also mesmerising. With balletic precision, Fouéré’s lithe, sinewy body transcends the seeming impregnability of the text as she swims through the river, pulls an imaginary rope, trails a bird across the horizon, or swirls and swishes from foot to foot, incanting Joyce’s language into a sacred celebration.
Fouéré’s arresting solo performance is garlanded by vigorous support. As co-director with Fouéré, Kellie Hughes’s taut pacing helps ensure that the production is never overwhelmed by the complexity of riverrun’s language. Alma Kelliher’s succulent sound design shifts between conveying a sense of floating through water and subtly interplaying with Fouéré’s verbal canvas. Mirroring the pulse of the text, Stephen Dodd’s lighting includes casting a glacier-white coating directly onto Fouéré and, using golden lights on either side of the stage, to throw warm shadows across the floor space.
Mark Twain’s insistence that a classic is “a book which people praise and don’t read” may encapsulate Finnegans Wake, but its defenders claim that the key to the novel is to read it aloud. Fouéré doesn’t (or doesn’t attempt to) demystify Joyce’s swansong, but her brave, agile and defiant performance simultaneously offers an intriguing snapshot of a literary conundrum and creates the theatrical equivalent of reading Joyce’s later works: spirit-shocking, exasperating and exhilarating.
Brendan Daly is a freelance arts journalist and critic for publications in Ireland and the U.S.
Read also Susan Conley's interview with Olwen Fouéré in 'riverrun: Olwen Fouéré on the voice of the river'.