“Who owns James Joyce?” a chorus of male voices clamour as the dying writer is wheeled onstage in the penultimate scene of Edna O’Brien’s new play. It is an odd question to pose in a work that offers up Joyce as an ultimate possessor rather than someone possessed. By assembling the women who shaped the writer’s life, O’Brien suggests the possibility of rescuing them as individuals apart from the writer’s legacy, but Joyce’s Women is ultimately his play, not theirs.
As a staged biography, then, Joyce’s Women takes a fragmentary shape, both in the dream logic of its scenes and in the refracted reflections that Joyce’s women offer. His mother, May (Deirdre Donnelly), appears to Joyce (Stephen Hogan) as he writes in a cafe in Paris, reminding him of the childhood rituals that shaped his religiosity. Nora Barnacle (Bríd Ní Neachtain), Martha Fleischmann (Catríona Ní Mhurchú) and Lucia Joyce (Genevieve Hulme Beaman) speak for him as partner, lover, father.
Recognisable Joyceisms are woven into their speeches, which function well as exposition but lack the “emotional pulse, the emotional engine” that O’Brien has long admired Joyce for. The result is characters that function as mouthpieces for a history that is not their own. The exception to this is Lucia, Joyce’s dancer daughter. Playing her, Beaman has access to a physical language that can transcend words. (Justine Doswell’s choreography is crucial here.)
There is much to admire about the lavish and technically daring production, directed by Conall Morrison. Sabine Dargent’s sliding set of shattered glass and mirrors offers room for both literal settings and imagined spaces. Ben Ormerod’s shadow-searching lights include a sumptuous starscape that is glimpsed only for seconds. Conor Linehan’s cinematic score and Ivan Birthistle’s unsettling sound design help to bring an atmospheric unity to the shifting scenes. There is an elaborate filmed sequence. A shadow scene projected against a theatrical red curtain. The resonant sound of Dublin captured in song by Bill Murphy, performing as Zozimus.
But there is a difference between affect and effect. Joyce’s Women is rich in exegesis, staging the gap between the writer and the man. However, the epiphany that Joyce sought out in both his life and his art never comes.