Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Olwen Fouéré's Riverrun

For Joyceans, the best thing that happened in 2012 was that the great man's works came out of copyright. For years, Joyce’s estate, run by his cantankerous grandson, Stephen, has tried hard to stop people quoting from, performing, or even reading his books in public. All this has now changed, and this year I've seen three fine stage productions of his works.

I was in Dublin at the weekend for the Theatre Festival, where Olwen Fouéré performed Riverrun at the Project Theatre. This is her adaptation of the final book of Finnegans Wake, which she acts out, through the voice of the River Liffey.

She performs on a deep wide stage, with a central microphone on a bending stand, the lead twisting away to the left rear corner of the stage. To the right of the lead, the floor is covered with salt crystals, giving the impression of the bank and river. She begins by taking off her shoes and stepping over the microphone lead onto the salt, into the water.

Fouéré then speak-sings the final chapter, from which she has cut out the dialogues and set pieces (St Kevin, Muta and Juva, St Patrick and the Druid). By removing them, using only the framing narrative and the final monologue, she creates a strong sense of a single voice in a flowing river of words. 

The central idea running though the last chapter is of waking up, after the long night of the book. 'Calling all downs. Calling all downs to dayne' - a call to everyone lying down to rise up with the day: 'Passing. One. We are passing. Two. From sleep we are passing. Three. Into the wikeawades warld from sleep we are passing. Four. Come, hours, be ours!'

The sense becomes clearer when we reach the final monologue, the only part of the book actually spoken by the river, Anna Liffey, as she flows out of Dublin to die in the Irish Sea.
The Liffey from Sean Heuston Bridge
As she speaks these words, Fouéré moves rhythmically, rolling her shoulders as if she is swimming. The movements grow bigger as she gets nearer the choppy waters of Dublin Bay. The watery sense is strengthened by
Stephen Dodd's lighting and Almer Kellaher's soundscape, which builds throughout the monologue.

The first part is spoken to her husband, who is the fallen giant Finnegan and the city of Dublin stretched out beside her: 'Rise up, man of the hooths, you have slept so long!' She calls on him to dress, and to join her. But he never replies. She's aware that she's being replaced in the water cycle by a younger river, 'a daughterwife from the hills...Swimming in my hindmoist.' This reminds her of her own youth when she fell, as rain, out of her mother, the sky:

The younger river, upstream at Chapelizod
'Now a younger's there.Try not to part! Be happy, dear ones! May I be wrong! For she'll be sweet for you as I was sweet when I came down out of me mother.  My great blue bedroom, the air so quiet, scarce a cloud. In peace and silence. I could have stayed up there for always only. It's something fails us. First we feel. Then we fall. And let her rain now if she likes. Gently or strongly as she likes. Anyway let her rain for my time is come.'

At the end, as the Liffey approaches the vast sea she grows disillusioned with her husband, the city (' I thought you the great in all things, in guilt and in glory. You're but a puny.'). Flowing into the sea is a death for the river, and a return to her father, the cold sea:
Looking upstream from the O'Connell Bridge
'I am passing out. O bitter ending! And it's old and old it's sad and old it's sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms....A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the' 

With the final 'the' Fouéré's face freezes in the light, suspended like the sentence, which will continue on the book's opening page ('riverrun past Eve and Adam's...') Finnegans Wake never ends.

Riverrun is an astonishing achievement, and it was wonderful to see it a stone's throw from

Olwen Fouéré by the Liffey after the show
the Liffey. It was the right time of year too, Autumn, when the Liffey is carrying leaves down to the sea ('I am leafy speafing').  The leaves are the pages of the book, which drift away one by one, until, on the last page Anna Livia says, 'My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still.'

After the show, we went down to the Liffey and joined Olwen for drinks on the Millennium Bridge. I asked her how difficult it was to learn the text. She said, 'I found I just knew it!'

Then we finished the evening in the Oval (where Simon Dedalus drinks with his cronies in
Ulysses) before heading back to Wynn's Hotel (which gets two mentions in Ulysses and three in Finnegans Wake).

Joycean Heaven!

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