The Dubliners Dilemma
City Arts Centre, Dublin
THE DILEMMA at the centre of Declan Gorman’s one-man performance for Bachelor’s Walk Productions, belongs not to James Joyce, but the man who finally brought his masterful collection of short stories into print, Grant Richards. Having retreated from the book in 1906 over its potentially controversial material, Richards approached Joyce eight years and fourteen other publishers later, motivated – the play suggests – by a nagging conscience.
Alone in his office adrift with papers and cardboard boxes, Gorman’s version of Richards is an apprehensive midwife to genius, privately enraptured by the work, but fretting over the objections of his printer and the grave consequences of Irish obscenity laws: publish and perish.
Gorman is as keen to deliver an involving précis of the book as several other recent Dubliners adaptations are now flooding the market with the dispensation of Joyce’s copyright, but the theme of his performance, economically directed by Gerard Lee, is that of persuasion. Drawing from letters between Richards and Joyce, he delivers the epistolary thrust and parry of objections and resistance. But the clincher is the work itself, which swells up around Richards onstage with exceprts from four of the book’s stories: An Encounter, A Mother, Counterparts and Two Gallants.
This makes heavy demand of Gorman as a performer, who tends to lean on costume to distinguish between characters (over the course of an hour he literally wears many hats) and must essay the boy narrator of An Encounter as well as the gnarled old persona of his implied abuser. He does it admirably, and cleverly alters the accent of narrator to allow characters to materialise stealthily. Such execution draws more focus than the ensuing worries of Richards, or his squeamishness over the misogynists of Two Gallants, and as the segues between stories become more forced, Richards begins to fade into the background as though he was simply a pretext to help Gorman devour the prose.
That may be why the excerpts come quite vividly to life, where Joyce’s words are left unadorned and largely undiluted, but Gorman struggles to imagine a convincing character for Richards (“I feel I have walked its mean streets,” he says of Dublin, sounding more like a Scorsese enthusiast) and portrays Joyce as a stern, boater-hatted icon. Richards is eventually subsumed into Joyce’s disarming fiction, unable to escape its force, and you might say the same about Gorman. They certainly won’t be the last of Joyce’s readers who are unable to put him down.