This year, with his works coming into the public domain, James Joyce belongs to everyone. With the end of copyright, his adapters face a different dilemma: now they can do anything with Joyce, where should they begin?
For The Corn Exchange, a company whose ensemble methods are as witty as they are physically spry, Dubliners seems like a good place to start. In fact, you could argue, they’ve been there before. In 2004’s Dublin by Lamplight and 2006’s Everyday, writer Michael West and director Annie West channelled the spirit of Joyce by presenting Dublin to the world through interlacing stories, self-narrating characters and comic and poignant vignettes. Returning that technique to Joyce’s prose provides them with little creative friction. (At this early stage of adaptations, “there’s nothing to rebel against”, West recently said.)
Instead, the performance seems to be in competition with the material, using much of the company’s trademark take on the commedia dell’arte to amplify or insert comment.
This ought to correspond theatrically with Joyce’s “style of scrupulous meanness”, where characters are first coddled, then lightly lacerated with irony. But as nine of the 15 stories swirl out in sequence on to Joe Vanek’s elegantly sparse set, the characters seem closer to caricature, leaning hard on rare-auld-time accents, plumbing for broader comedy. With little variation between the stories, it becomes excessive, often making explicit the famously teasing ambiguities of the stories.
Take the sinister old man who appears in An Encounter, thin and crooked as a heron in Mark O’Halloran’s fascinatingly creepy performance.
“Look what he’s doing!” says one of two mitching schoolboys, but Ryan makes it explicit; comic but depthless. If there is a restless feeling about the show, a neat joke involving the Gaiety itself also suggests some self-consciousness, as though worried about the energy flagging over more than three hours in such a huge space.
While O’Halloran, Derbhle Crotty and Nick Lee do some fine work throughout, in The Boarding House the ensemble fun turns to shtick; by Counterparts, that shtick turns to flailing hysteria; and by the time we hit A Mother, the palaver feels like panic.
It’s telling that the standout sections – an exquisite duet between O’Halloran and Crotty as the lonely souls in A Painful Case and the concluding majestic poignancy of The Dead – mute the devices for better effect.
“We are still learning to be Joyce’s contemporaries,” a critic once wrote, and, for all the energy expended here, it’s only in those moments that these Dubliners seem closer to us.
- Peter Crawley