The difference between Shakespeare and Joyce

A trip to London led me to the National Theatre’s brilliant ‘King Lear’ and to ‘Riverrun’, Olwen Fouéré’s show based on texts from ‘Finnegans Wake’

James Joyce: ‘A writer who wore language like a straitjacket, trying to burst his way out in every cadence.’ Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

James Joyce: ‘A writer who wore language like a straitjacket, trying to burst his way out in every cadence.’ Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images


I went to London last week on a flight dominated by about half a dozen Dubliners in tracksuits shouting at each other across the heads of other passengers and, as the aircraft took off, making jokes about crashing.

The men called the women sluts and the women shouted back that the men were all arseholes. As the aircraft lifted into the sky they cheered and then began looking for drinks. The men drank whiskey and the women drank a pink liquid that looked like what a dentist might ask you to rinse your mouth with, only it smelled like the breath of a sickly child.

The men had close-shaven heads and tattoos on their necks, and they talked about Taser guns and someone who was getting out of jail next month.

By the time we were over London, one woman was desperate to go to the toilet but the cabin crew said that, because we were landing, she would have to wait, which amused the men enormously.

The following day I was at the National Theatre to see King Lear . I had lunch in the theatre restaurant, on a high stool beside a woman reading Bill Bryson and talking to her father on her mobile. She was complaining about how her bank wasn’t offering her any interest worth talking about on her savings, and she sounded hurt by the world and needed someone to listen. But when she finished, she phoned her mother and said “Daddy never listens”. And then halfway through that conversation she said, “Mummy, you never listen either. I told you all this before.”


She looked so fragile
It’s a pity she didn’t try talking to me. I would have listened to her all day because her English accent was beautiful and she looked so fragile in her white lace blouse and her long, ankle-length skirt the colour of chocolate. But she didn’t notice me. She sauntered off up the stairs, turning her head left and right as if she was looking for someone else.

At the back of the circle I took my seat beside a woman my own age who had a fat, blotchy face like a lump of dough. She told me at the interval that she had seen seven Lears and that this one was by far the best. And I suspect she was right.

I love the coherence of Shakespeare’s language, the way every speech seems to open up fresh insights about something or other. The way casual phrases drip with wisdom about human nature. No wonder the English ended up ruling half the world: there’s a tyranny about well- ordered language that kept the underclasses in their place for centuries.


A kind of woundedness
Later that evening I attended Riverrun , Olwen Fouéré’s one-woman show based on texts from Finnegan s Wake . The white-haired icon of Irish theatre gave a stunning performance. She just stood at a microphone and the words flew out of her like the current of a river. And her voice ached with a kind of woundedness that for me is the heart of Joyce, a writer who wore language like a straitjacket, trying to burst his way out in every cadence.

Finnegan s Wake is like the tracks of a terrorist running “amok,” or “amuck” or even “amach” along the linguistic pathways of the brain. How anyone could make his madness coherent is beyond me, but Olwen Fouéré succeeded with mesmerising mastery.

The following day I could tolerate only music, so I just hung around the Southbank Centre, where BBC Radio 3 was broadcasting live from a pop-up studio in the foyer. I sat outside at the river listening to the classical music seeping from huge black speakers behind me as a crowd of schoolgirls at another table glossed their lips and gazed unconsciously into the tiny screens on their mobile phones.

A man from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu sat at the table nearest to mine.

“Young people are always very happy,” he said.

“Oh yes,” I agreed, “I envy them.”

“But there is nothing to envy,” he said. “They are full of joy. But we have serenity, which is much better.”

I smiled.

“And we have the BBC Radio 3,” he added as the music of a violin continued.

That’s when I asked him where he was from. “Tamil Nadu,” he said, pronouncing the words with slow pride and affection.

“And you are Irish,” he declared. ”I can tell from your accent.”

But we didn’t say much after that. We just sat gazing at the river and listening to the violin; each of us at separate tables and lost for words.

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