An Abbey production haunted by two ghosts
Yet these radical thoughts are not really carried through in the production.
The whole affair seems rather too grand, as if some sludge from Downton Abbey has seeped into Joyce’s Dublin. The Misses Morkan are not fine ladies: they’re music teachers. They don’t have a grand house with a ballroom: they rent the upper floor of a “dark gaunt house” from a corn factor. The atmosphere of the story depends on the idea that, as Joyce puts it, “their life was modest”. The annual party is an oasis of pleasure in tough lives – hence its importance. There is little sense of this in the lavish sets and costumes.
This is not just a point of external detail, however. It is crucial to the story that Gabriel feels uncomfortable in this setting. Why? Because he has moved up the social ladder and the Morkans have not. His embarrassment is that of a man returning to people whom he now regards as less sophisticated than himself. He is desperate not to seem to be condescending; hence his nervousness about references to Robert Browning in his speech: “He feared they would be above the heads of his hearers.” The relative opulence of the setting prevents us from understanding why Gabriel is so uncertain and sensitive, why he struggles with his emotions. In Stanley Townsend’s performance he seems merely grumpy.
And this makes the culmination of the piece rather disastrous. Gabriel’s famous peroration is hard to stage, not least because it is so famous. But Mark O’Halloran, in Corn Exchange’s recent version of Dubliners, managed to make it at once wistful and rapturous. Here it is hit by two torpedoes.
One is the cumulative effect of the failure to give Gabriel’s emotional turbulence a rationale. The other is McGuinness’s idea of having the passage delivered directly to the sleeping Gretta, as if it is a realistic speech. It is not surprising that Townsend can’t make this work, but the failure brings a richly thoughtful and sometimes beautiful play to an anticlimactic end. Wet sleet, not dazzling snow, covers the living strengths of The Dead.