Culture Shock: A fearless plunge into pure performance

Olwen Fouéré’s ‘riverrun’ is a highlight of Dublin Theatre Festival 2013

Much of what happens at Dublin Theatre Festivals is somewhat accidental. The large theatres – the Abbey and the Gate – do their own thing in a way that may or may not resonate with the programme as a whole. If there is a theme to the festival, it has to be discerned in the work specifically chosen for the festival. In its early days, that theme would seem to come in the form of a question: what is theatre? It is not necessarily the most interesting question in the world.

An intention to challenge even the most basic perceptions of what theatre is may be seen in the choice of one of the few works that runs throughout the festival: This Is Not My Voice Speaking, playing 10 times a day at Temple Bar Studios.

Created by Ant Hampton and Britt Hatzius, it is a genuinely interesting and engaging piece, well worth participating in. The small audience is divided between zeroes and ones (making us fragments of digital code) and led into a room decked with outmoded analogue devices: a slide projector, a cassette recorder, a record player, a film projector. We follow instructions, hesitantly and awkwardly bringing the machines to life and experiencing the dislocations of painstakingly constructed visual and aural images.

This is enjoyable and thought-provoking, but it is not theatre. This last word refers to a very wide range of activities, but it has an irreducible core of meaning. A piece of theatre requires two things: a physical space and at least one actor. This Is Not My Voice Speaking has no actor. It is an art installation. It could not even be called performance art, as there is no external performance.


The idea, presumably, is to create a kind of ground zero from which we can think again about the elements of theatre and ask a slightly more complicated and significant question: what is theatre good for? Is it any good at connecting to the real world? The early days of the festival provided (this time presumably unintentionally) two extremely contrasting answers. We got one abysmal failure to connect to human pain and one rather moving success.

On the surface, Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor's Tom and Vera, presented by their own Desperate Optimists company, and David Greig's The Events, presented by the Actors Touring Company, have a great deal in common. Both try to deal, albeit in a nonliteral way, with actual events. The eponymous Tom and Vera are ordinary, fortysomething victims of the Irish bank and property collapse. In the second play, the events of the title are an imaginatively filtered version of Anders Breivik's massacre of young people in Norway. Both are essentially male/female two-handers. Both have deliberately disruptive, nonlinear narratives and a self-conscious theatricality.

Both have elements of violent melodrama: Tom and Vera are planning to rob the bank that they believe has robbed them; the female priest who has survived the massacre in The Events plans a murderous revenge on the killer. Both, most obviously, make very heavy use of live music. Tom and Vera is awash with Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, including a fine live performance by Janyce Condon. The Events features an entire community choir, which is on stage throughout and crucial to both its
action and its emotion.

There is, however, one big difference between them – in fact, the biggest of all: the difference between good and bad. Tom and Vera is a crude sketch, a single, not very significant idea tricked out with a range of devices that do nothing to give it depth: actors talking to stuffed animals, a heavy-handed "theatricality" of make-up, costuming, character and rehearsal, and Wagnerian and biblical allusions that substitute for actual dramatic texture. It evokes the current Irish crisis but only in a way that suggested a losing battle to say anything about it.

It was just as well, therefore, that The Events rescued some sense of relevance for the theatre. It is too small in scale to be a profoundly meaningful reflection on violence and intolerance, but it has seriousness and tact and dignity.

It is striking that Greig and its director, Ramin Gray, more or less admit, in the form of the piece, that drama, on the scale they can manage, is not quite adequate to the task of exploring the big themes of racism, difference and decency. But it is equally striking that they have come up with a powerful, extratheatrical way to embody the idea of community that they wish to set against the nihilism of mass murder.

By using local choirs and making them central to what happens, they revive the ancient idea of the chorus that stands for the city. The counterpoint between the individual anguish of the priest and the collective continuance of the choir has a simple, understated power.

Standing for the city is what Olwen Fouéré does, almost literally, in riverrun, her astounding swim in the swirling, eddying, endlessly babbling waters of Finnegans Wake. Here there is no questioning of what theatre can do, just a fearless plunge into pure performance. Fouéré has stout supports in Monica Frawley's costumes, Stephen Dodd's lighting and Alma Kelliher's richly
layered sound design, but this is
still an act of lonely daring. And it is thrillingly accomplished.

The last section of Finnegans Wake, from which she adapts the text, is typically dense and difficult. Fouéré approaches it, though, through three related avenues. There is rising and falling: the city waking up, the river rising, the world dying and being reborn. There is the dynamic of male and female – the land and the water
– between which Fouéré moves with uncanny clarity. And there is the sensation of flowing: the unstoppable surge of the Liffey, of life, of history, of sensations. Out of these elements she creates a unity that is also full of dazzling variation, a mesmerising coherence of body and word, a flood of sound and gesture.

We do not comprehend everything
but we do apprehend – and are apprehended: seized, arrested, captured. We go
with the flow and only later, in recollection, wonder at the marvels of courage and technique.

Riverrun has three performances left today and tomorrow, and for me at least it is the highlight of the festival so far.