Following the flow of the ‘Wake’ to its source

How can you capture the dark seam of energy and form at the heart of ‘Finnegans Wake’? By giving voice to the river that runs through James Joyce’s extraordinary book

In Sydney, Australia on June 16th, 2011, I agreed to perform a reading from James Joyce's Ulysses for the Irish Consulate, "in honour of the day that was in it", on condition that I include a reading from Finnegans Wake.

Never having read the book in any linear fashion – instead I had dived into snippets by opening it at random – I was a great fan of the Wake's mercurial form and had carried, at the back of my mind, the possibility of giving voice to all that wild language in performance.

I had no interest in a "story" beyond the language, with its play of cultural and cosmic forces, and was not a great reader of Joyce, but I saw the Wake as a seam of dark matter, somewhere between energy and form, music and language: the trace of a boat on an endlessly changing surface.

So, on that day, at the event in Sydney, I chose to read the last page, where Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP) , in her guise as the river “Life”, dissolves into the great ocean of time.


And that’s how it all began, with an audience, in a public space. Something happened during the reading, a moment where a few atoms changed shape and traversed the energy of the river approaching her death and transformation in the arms of the sea: “The moyles and moyles of it, maonanoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms. I see them rising!

“Save me from those therrble prongs! Two more. Onetwo moremens more. So. Avelaval.

“Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, Far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlee, mememormee! Tillthousends thee. The keys to. Given.”

By the end of the reading, with the suspended last line too precious to repeat here, the decision was made, inspired by the buzzing of atoms and a moment of flight.

There was no choice, really. Working backwards from the end of the book, the performance idea was taking shape. The river Liffey (Life) was all the rivers of the world, including our body’s bloodstream: a force of constant renewal, moving us forwards, towards the dawn.

Then it was simply a matter of following the river’s path, moving backwards towards the source that was pulling like a deep song from Deep time; intuitively selecting journey points, skipping chunks of text, inserting a couple of short passages from earlier in the book, all gathering at the starting point marked Book IV, the beginning of the end of the book, referred to by scholars as the Ricorso, or Renewal or Dawn.

The performance of Riverrun begins there, at the meridian of day and night, male and female, earth and space, island and sea. The first three words are Sanskrit, meaning the twilight of dawn: "Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Calling all downs. Calling all dawns to dayne. Array! Surrection. Eireweeker to the wohld bludyn world. O rally, O rally, O rally! Phlenxty, O rally!

“To what lifelike thyne of the bird can be. Seek you somany matters. Haze sea east to Osseania. Here! Here! Tass, Patt, Staff, Woff, Havv, Bluvv and Rutter. The smog is lofting. Sonne feine, somme foehn avaunt!”

Finn MacCool and Foyn MacHooligan, cartoon-like heroes, music-hall gags, a giant body and its cosmic counterpart, the constellation of Orion, Ursa Major, the Egyptian book of the dead, various characters – celestial, human, animal, vegetal and mineral – hover. They emerge and morph on rhythms as subversive and agile as Charlie Chaplin.

In fact, I am sure he must be in there somewhere. As is, without a doubt, the voice of Lucia, Joyce’s incarcerated daughter, with her silenced rage, her dancer’s brilliance and the multilingual fire of her wit.

I am sure I can hear her, waking our silence, making us laugh. “Cockalooralooraloomenus.

“Rise up now and Aruse! Norvena’s over.”

Wake up, rise up.

It’s an amazing journey to embark on, through an ever-changing universe, unbound by so-called reality, narrative or character, all those fixed ideas that can tyrannise the boundaries of our imagination.

The river leads the way, a sound-dance of revolutionary energy which is impossible to surf like an expert.

The performer in Riverrun swims like a "cara weeseed", a tiny cell in a cluster of cells, negotiating its way through the swirling world that made us.

It’s an impossible task and a continuous process. There are so many questions.

A new friend, the French philosopher Sylvère Lotringer, said to me recently that a question is a precious thing. It is.

How now to create a performance that can remain fluid, the form non-fixed, everything the theatre fundamentally aims for, but this time the question is a lot more complicated. It’s also wildly exhilarating. The river of words fills you with negative ions. Release the great energy of ALP! Free Lucia!

Here is what Joyce once wrote to Arthur Power: “The important thing is not what we write, but how we write, and in my opinion the writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously.

“A book, in my opinion, should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself.”

He could have been speaking about performance. Embrace the danger.

There have been several different versions on the way, and seven performed readings by invitation from Rough Magic, Dublin Theatre Festival, Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, and at two art and geography conferences, at the Université Lumiére in Lyon and NUI Galway.

There have been numerous conversations and collaborations with other artists during the development of Riverrun, including composers Susan Stenger, Mikel Rouse and Roger Doyle; directors Tom Creed, Annie Ryan and Sarah Jane Scaife; designers Monica Frawley, Paul Keogan and choreographer Megan Kennedy.

Independent producer Jen Coppinger joined the project in early 2012, gathering a strong and dedicated team including the composer/sound designer Alma Kelliher, lighting designer Stephen Dodd and co-director Kellie Hughes.

So now we are all on the boat, authoring our own way down the river. Let’s hope the audience will come too.

Our first stop is with our co-producers, Galway Arts Festival. And that will only be the beginning.

Riverrun will be performed at the Druid Lane Theatre on July 18th-20th (€20-€25) and on July 24th Olwen and the creative team will give a talk, for more see