A Joycean stream of consciousness

Olwen Fouéré’s performance gives voice to the river in James Joyce’s unfathomable ‘Finnegans Wake’. It’s sink-or-swim time

Druid Theatre, Galway Arts Festival

In all the recent efforts to popularise the work of James Joyce, his unfathomable last novel, Finnegans Wake, has remained squarely on the shelf. At least it isn't hard to fathom why. Its warp and weft of smearing words, literary allusions, multilingual puns and rushing streams of consciousness are now primarily used to enslave academics.

For the theatre adapter, this inscrutability may be one of its most important assets. Whereas recent stage adaptations of Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses have been efforts in compression and sacrifice, Finnegans Wake has the liberty of being unrevered, unreadable and often unpronounceable: "bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur- nuk!" Anyone who dares to make sense or sound of it is welcome.

To look at Olwen Fouéré’s body, in a shale-coloured suit, on the simple stage space of her bold new performance piece (co-directed with Kellie Hughes) is to see a teasing correspondence between performance and text. On a shoreline of scattered salt, bordered by a meandering microphone lead, Fouéré seems to weave and float and swim, in constant motion from the arch of her foot to the long cascades of her sea-foam white hair. As with the text, there are no straight lines.

Taking the novel’s last chapter as her material, delivered by the character of Anna Livia Plurabelle, who is (among other things) essentially the voice of the river Liffey, Fouéré’s performance is an invitation to either go with its flow or to become lost in its babble: sink or swim.


Your response will be somewhere between abandon and frustration (I leaned towards the latter) depending on your need for the stepping stones of comprehension. There are some, in the snatches of identifiable puns or stable references, but the deep pulse of Alma Kelliher’s sound design makes a more subtle point, conjuring up lapping waves or the hum of the womb; a reminder of a time when all language was a burbling tone poem.

Fouéré's command is nothing less than astonishing, and her final facial expression – a moment of suspended awe – is pure physical poetry, yet to call it a virtuoso performance would be to miss the point. She is more generous than that, more selfless, an equal to the text. It is still hard to see Joyce's book as something other than a goading, multilayered game, but for a while at least, Fouéré makes it sing.
Until Saturday, then at Kilkenny Arts Festival August 15-18 and Dublin Theatre Festival October 2-6

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture