Somebody please make a drama out of the crisis
THERE IS NOTHINGinnately wrong with the idea of exploring a prose text. And, indeed, the festival gives us a very strong example of how this process can achieve its own integrity. The American company Elevator Repair Service, already known here for Gatz, its superb version of The Great Gatsby, moves beyond the idea of adaptation to the attempt, in the words of the director, John Collins, to “uncover a play inside the novel”, in this case Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which it presents as The Select.
The big discovery of Gatz was that the way to do this is to create a theatrical universe parallel to the one the novel inhabits. Instead of dragging a prose text on to the stage and making it fit the conventions of the theatre, what the company does is to draw, very slowly, a Venn diagram in which the old text and the new play retain their independent existence but come to share an overlapping, highly charged space. In the case of The Select, this space is a bar that occupies the stage but is infiltrated by Hemingway’s characters. It’s a gradual, careful, moment-by-moment process that becomes utterly compelling.
It was perhaps a misfortune of programming that The Select happened to coincide with an example of what happens when you don’t go through this process of completely reinventing a prose text for the stage. Corn Exchange’s version of James Joyce’s Dubliners fails in exactly the way that The Select succeeds: it never creates an autonomous onstage world in which the action unfolds. Joe Vanek’s puzzling set embodies the essential problem: too monumental to release the imagination, too abstract to create a realistic space.
Dubliners hovers between possibilities without realising any of them. It is often reverentially literal, yet it is also deeply unfaithful to the spirit of the originals. Joyce’s stories are almost all about what is not happening and what is not said. They are immensely subtle and discreet. This version tries to make everything explicit, sacrificing all the power of the unseen, the murmured, the half-glimpsed. Thus, to take the worst example, the two boys on the mitch in An Encounter are approached by a sinister stranger who wants to talk about sex. He moves away. There is silence. One of the boys says “I say! Look what he’s doing!” The reader has to imagine the moment. Here, Mark O’Halloran’s stranger obviously masturbates and then wipes his hands on his jacket. The moment that in the story is sinister and shameful and silent has become lurid, grotesque and crude.
This wouldn’t matter so much if Corn Exchange had gone all the way with this and wholly appropriated Dubliners to its own commedia dell’arte style. But even while blasting away the subtleties of the stories, Annie Ryan’s production remains oddly in awe of them, so that many of the episodes remain little more than animated readings. What we get is neither the exuberance of the company nor the careful reticence of Joyce, but something that shifts uncomfortably between them. The great pity is that there is, in a superbly moving version of A Painful Case, an interplay between O’Halloran and Derbhle Crotty that catches Joyce’s tone of comic pity to perfection and that reveals the depth of the missed opportunity.
EMMA DONOGHUE’Sbeautifully crafted version of the life and work of the remarkable short-story writer Maeve Brennan, The Talk of the Town, is more successful, partly because it can move fluidly between Brennan’s career at the New Yorker and her fiction. The connections it makes between them are not subtle; the implication of the way the piece works is that the Dublin family imagined in her stories is simply and literally her own, that she was remembering rather than inventing.