James Joyce biopic a play on words

Thu, Feb 7, 2013, 00:00

A multilingual staging of the writer's life and work is about to hit Dublin theatres

It is a regrettably authentic Dublin welcome: a cold, wet and windy night that has chilled the space beneath La Catedral studio's rafters, so any idea of James Joyce's ghost being in the room seems a little less fanciful. At least the Berlin actors who have just landed are being kept on their toes, not only by director Niksa Eterovic's rehearsal instructions, but by the knowledge that they must soon bring the city's most famous writer to a Dublin audience. Foreigners, coming here, taking our Joyce.

To say that Eterovic has committed himself to this project - three parts of his five-part "James Joyce Cycle" are being staged in Dublin this month - is like floating the idea that Finnegans Wake has some tough bits in it. So keen was the 57-year-old Croatian to get under the skin of the city that he moved here lock, stock and cycle - wife and two daughters (aged three and five) in tow - from Berlin, where his TeNTheater company was founded, and has settled in Joyce's native Rathgar. Joyce's life and work are the subject of this cycle, and when Eterovic says he believes the two are inseparable ("I think there is almost no difference"), you understand he could be talking about his own life, too.

Youthful, energetic and intense, the director is at heart an optimist who believes in his actors inhabiting their roles even before they have become familiar with the text, and trusts his audience to enjoy the performances on an experiential rather than intellectual footing. This appears to be easier said than done in a country where the wider public can be notoriously distrustful of Joyce's difficult works, but Eterovic insists his multilingual, highly expressive, music-based theatre is more entertaining than terrifying (the nine-strong ensemble are from Germany, Spain, France and Greece, with Dubliner Marc McCabe as Leopold Bloom).

"I think my performances are very simple," says Eterovic, a one-time student of Peter Brook, "because I play with sound, with the spirit. They are for laughing, because life for Joyce was this way. The performance is grotesque, bitter irony in a way. The ordinary person must come to this - it's not intellectual, we want atmosphere."

The bitter ironies reside in some of the topics explored in these three parts of his cycle: Joyce's daughter Lucia's mental illness; his increasing blindness as he works on the language for Finnegans Wake; and his despair at not being accepted as a writer. "As a person it was easier for him to live the moment he created something, because otherwise he probably would not have survived - not financially but spiritually, his personality.

"He finds creativity through pain and joy. He didn't have a choice. This was pain and this was his life. He even said that he enjoyed pain. One could maybe even say this was the main focus in Joyce's life - difficulties, pain, some kind of thread, some line. It's hell as a paradise."

It is no surprise that what Eterovic calls Joyce's "prose of restlessness" resonates with an emigrant director who has undertaken a comparable journey, in the opposite direction. "There is a tension within existence. This is the crucial point, living two lives in a way, because you belong somewhere but you live somewhere else."

Neither geographic nor linguist boundaries exist in Eterovic's "post-national theatre", in which an international cast performing in several languages (there will be surtitles in Dublin) lays bare his philosophy that meaningful communication takes place on a deeper level.

The theory was tested to the full when Eterovic brought his James Joyce Cycle to Kathmandu in Nepal. Locals in the audience, many of whom understood none of the languages before them, remained attentive for more than three hours and then offered a standing ovation.

"It is the unconscious, what is behind, that matters. And maybe this is what happened in Kathmandu - people understood without literally understanding."

James Joyce Cycle, Parts 2 & 4: Lucia Joyce - La Macchina della Famiglia and Irishirisirischmurmelquietsch is at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin until Saturday. Part 5: Ulysses or The Cyclops and his Rhinoceroses is at the O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin, February 13th-16th

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