Dubliners: Struggling to get intimate with James Joyce’s short stories

Dialogue used to help piece together comedy scenes are not always complemented by the production’s choices


Smock Alley Theatre, Main Space, Dublin


Early in Dubliners, James Joyce’s collection of short stories, a boy reckons with the trauma of losing someone close to him. “I said softly to myself the word ‘paralysis’. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work,” he says.

It feels like a message from Joyce, trying to look under the hood of withholding individuals trapped by banality, abuse and isolation. In a new trimmed, honed version of Annie Ryan and Michael West’s adaptation, co-produced by Corn Exchange and Smock Alley Theatre, this scene is the first we see, though the rest of the short story that features it — The Sisters — has been cut. You can’t keep everything.

Those attentive to the play’s original production a decade ago will see a lot of re-invention. The Edwardian style and architecture have been exchanged for the fashion of our own era, as individuals come and go in modern dress, against the contemporary cityscape of Sarah Bacon’s set. The Corn Exchange’s hyperkinetic, filmic take on physical comedy — or its “renegade Commedia” — has been replaced by the comparatively understated playing of a young ensemble. Without the distancing reminders of frame-perfect effects and theatrical make-up, this Dubliners seems to be trying to get up close and personal.


The difficulty is how to make the prose, switching between expositional third-person narration and featherlight dialogue, more intimate. For instance, in the short story Eveline, Leah Minto’s performance as a teenage girl, longing to escape a household without promise, refuses to be anything but instructive.

There are occasions when actors take advantage of the pace and topography of the material. Watch Alex Murphy give a skilful performance in Two Gallants as a thirtysomething singleton, occasionally seized by feelings of loneliness, while he breezily saunters between different venues and streets in Dublin.

If exposition can be disguised as characterisation, Timmy Creed gives an astute turn in A Painful Case, playing a middle-aged loner. Taking a character who sounds bluntly honest and unworried about offence, Creed’s narration bears resemblance to someone openly confiding in an audience, while seething with resentment for just about everybody.

When there is dialogue to help piece together scenes of riotous comedy, these are not always complemented by the production’s choices. For example, without the heightened effects of make-up or exaggerated costuming, the unruly school students in An Encounter give the cloying impression of adult actors trying to dress and convince as children.

Judging by appearances, director Annie Ryan’s staging seems immediate, letting Joyce’s characters loose in a derelict Dublin of empty buildings and shuttered shopfronts. References to trams and shillings will inevitably pull us back into Joyce’s era, leaving the deliberate anachronism unclear. If the collection’s famous coda The Dead is a clue, perhaps the inhabitants — a troubled married couple in this case, looking as distant as ever — are just like their city. Dublin, you leave us cold.

Runs until June 24th. smockalleytheatre.com

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture