Chapatti at Galway International Arts Festival

It’s been a great first week at the Galway International Arts Festival – and I have lots to say about Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk in particular (though I need to see it again, and then lie down for at least two days afterwards to recover). But for now I wanted to write a short note about Christian O’Reilly’s Chapatti. 

I first saw an O’Reilly play at the Galway Arts Festival in 2002, when Druid produced his Good Father, a two-hander that charts the relationship of a couple who have a one-night stand, and then discover that the woman has become pregnant. I was impressed at that time by the emotional honesty of that play – it was clear about what it wanted to say and it didn’t feel the need to overcomplicate the plot or draw attention to itself. As has been true for all of O’Reilly’s subsequent plays, he has a very clear understanding of how people’s needs determine their interactions – and he just gets out of the way and lets the story be told.

He subsequently had Is This About Sex? produced by Rough Magic at the Dublin Theatre Festival, and his much admired Sanctuary with Blue Teapot appeared at DTF last year also. Less well known is Here We Are Again Still, a play based on interviews with people living in Galway’s Mervue estate. I saw it at the Galway Theatre Festival a few years ago and found it formally interesting (it is fascinating to compare it with other recent works that make use of interviews – by people like Alecky Blythe or even Anu Productions). I also enjoyed the story and liked the characters. And that’s a trait of all of O’Reilly’s plays – he always gives us a good story and people the audience can identify with. Here We Are Again Still was produced here in Galway, directed by Andrew Flynn – and as is often the way of these things, it went largely unnoticed in the rest of the country, especially in Dublin.

For all of these reasons, i was delighted to learn that Chicago’s Northlight Theater were staging his new play Chapatti – first in Chicago and then here in Galway for the Arts Festival. It’s a two-hander with John Mahoney and Penny Slusher, and it’s directed by BJ Jones, who brought The Outgoing Tide and Stella and Lou to Galway in 2012 and 2013 respectively. And it’s very good.

O’Reilly writes in his programme note that he’d originally imagined the story being told as two monologues, one by a man and the other by a woman, both somewhat elderly and both encountering different forms of loneliness. He spent several years tinkering with the play before finally having the two characters begin to speak to each other. So the play, put simplistically, shifts from monologue to dialogue before settling finally on the latter.

And again, I think that’s very interesting formally. The monologue in Irish drama is often used, and probably overused, to signify loneliness and isolation. The reason that Pig and Runt speak to the audience in Disco Pigs is because it’s no longer possible for them to speak to each other. The same is true of the characters in Friel’s Faith Healer or Beckett’s Play, among many others – the form and the content influence each other very strongly.

Here the movement from monologue/direct address of the audience to dialogue/realistic representation of the acting is a formal representation of the burgeoning relationship between the two characters.


But it also means that there was a risk of the play feeling uneven or disjointed – like two plays tacked together (a theme in this year’s Festival – more on that sometime soon). What impressed me here was that Jones’s direction ensures that there is a coherence to the action overall.

He presents the action on a large, slightly rounded set that represents the living rooms of both characters – the man usually occupies the left side, the woman the right, but while there is a realistic level of detail in the set we also understand that the table centre-stage can sometimes be in the man’s house and sometimes in the woman’s. In other words, the action is both realistic and theatricalised at the same time.  We believe that what we’re seeing is happening in the real world, but we also know that there’s a lot of play happening too.

And that allows the shift from monologue to realism (and back again) work very well throughout the action. Sometimes the characters act out their monologues – jumping this way or that, miming holding something, and generally using their physical presence to convey the story. So the direction of the monologues is very dynamic – much more so than is usually the case in Irish plays (an exception being Mark O’Rowe’s direction of Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in Howie the Rookie last year).

But the realistic sections are then played down, held back, restrained. It’s a very neat balancing act: the quality of the direction is evident largely in the fact that you’re almost never aware that the play has been directed at all.

The play itself is a very simple story about a man and a woman exploring the possibility that they could form a relationship. As such, it is very similar to last year’s Northlight production Stella and Lou. And it also reminded me a lot of Deirdre Kinahan’s Halcyon Days from last year – people who liked Kinahan’s play as it toured Ireland would probably love Chapatti, and for similar reasons. Like Kinahan, O’Reilly knows how to tie his plot  together very skilfully.

I was also very struck last night by the audience’s engagement: there were lots of “oohs” and “ahs”, a bit of wolf-whistling at one stage, and lots of familiar laughter. The audience were rooting for the characters, wishing them well. So like the director, the playwright here is making something very difficult seem effortless.

It’s an interesting experience seeing a Chicago company stage an Irish play. Audience members here are bound to notice a few bum notes: the accents sometimes wander and the costumes don’t quite ring true. Does this matter? I don’t really think so. It doesn’t matter because the play is not really looking to create geographical authenticity: the play is set in Dublin but it could easily be set in Galway, or indeed in Chicago. The company is doing a huge amount to respect the Irish origins of the play, and I think that merits respect.

And it also doesn’t matter because we in Ireland don’t own the Irish play anymore – if it ever belonged to us in the first place. That’s why we find Conor McPherson’s Night Alive being staged in London and New York, though it’s yet to receive a full production here (a reading was staged in Cavan I believe). That’s why John Patrick Shanley produced Outside Mullingar, a play that was set in “Ireland” but which displays little evidence of any knowledge of the Ireland that I happen to live in – and doesn’t seem all that bothered that this is the case.

I don’t want to simplify a complicated situation. And I don’t want to imply that producers have no responsibilities when it comes to being accurate and/or authentic in the staging of Ireland. But I do think it’s great that a mid-career playwright like O’Reilly has been able to find a theatre in the US that have been willing to take him on, giving him a full-blooded, fully worked out production, and bringing forth a play that would almost certainly never have been produced to this level in Ireland.

So it’s interesting as a cultural phenomenon, and it’s a very good play that people can enjoy, and are enjoying. As I was leaving the theatre last night, I heard a middle aged man – in proper, full on pleasantly-surprised mode – saying to his wife that “that’s a play that would make me want to come back to the theatre again”. I think we need more plays like this.

Mark O’Rowe and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor on Howie the Rookie

Last Tuesday night, I was delighted to be able to chair a post-show discussion about Howie the Rookie with its author and director Mark O’Rowe and with its star (and he really is a star) Tom Vaughan-Lawlor.

O’Rowe spoke at length about his composition of Howie, which first appeared in 1999. He’d been commissioned to write a play for the Abbey, he explained – but, as an inexperienced writer, he found himself writing what he thought of as an “Abbey theatre play”. In consequence, the play was not very good and was rejected.

This caused a sense of crisis which moved towards resolution when O’Rowe read Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. The novel features two lengthy monologues by a pair of distinct but inter-related men – which inspired O’Rowe to write a play that features two lengthy monologues by a pair of distinct but inter-related men. He also spoke about how liberating he found Beckett’s prose, which doesn’t really have a plot or conclusion. His own play is tightly plotted and reaches a strong ending, of course, but the sense of freedom he found in Beckett helped him to find his way into the play.

Howie the Rookie was a huge hit when it premiered in London in 1999. It featured Aidan Kelly as Howie and Karl Shiels as the Rookie, and was a success both in Ireland and internationally. Kelly and Shiels’s performances are recalled affectionately by everyone who saw them – and they reprised them in the Peacock in 2006 in a production directed by Jimmy Fay.

Howie the Rookie, Peacock Theatre, 2006

After a few minutes of discussing the play together, we were joined on stage by Vaughan-Lawlor – so I asked him how it felt when he was told that he’d be taking on not just one of these famous roles but both of them.

Vaughan-Lawlor spoke of the immediate feeling of both fear and excitement, and later mentioned that he’d spent most of the final three months of 2012 learning the roles, so that he could arrive at rehearsals ready to work on the details. I asked him if he needed to do anything to shift from one role to the other: was there some sort of thinking that he needed to do during the interval to move from Howie to the Rookie, I wondered. He chuckled apologetically: “to be honest, I don’t do anything,” he said. “I just change my t-shirt”.

Later the conversation turned to the question of whether Howie and the Rookie are separate characters, with Vaughan-Lawlor implying that he sees them both as different facets of one personality.

For O’Rowe the revival was also an opportunity to revisit the script. He stated that he hadn’t changed much of the play’s language. Rhythmically it sounds closer to O’Rowe’s 2007 verse-play Terminus that to the original Howie, but that similarity probably owes more to the direction than any rewrites. He did state, however, that he’s made some very small changes to the presentation of characters such as the Avalanche and White Pudding boy: he wanted to make clearer that the negative views expressed about them were based on the characters’ perceptions rather than any reality. And indeed in performance both come across more sympathetically than was the case in previous productions of the play.

We touched on a few other topics, with both men speaking warmly about how the producer Anne Clarke had put the show together – and about how, despite having now performed the play in Dublin, Cork and Galway, they are still making small changes to the performance.

We soon opened the discussion out to the audience, and there were some great questions: about the language, about whether the play could be understood abroad (it already has been, replied O’Rowe), and so on.

I had seen in one of the back rows that someone had a hand up, but couldn’t clearly see the person’s face. I became a bit worried when I called on the person to make their comment and realised that the speaker was a boy, aged maybe 10 or 12. “I have a question for Mark and Tom,” he said – and the audience laughed with good-natured surprise. “That’s Mark’s son,” explained Tom – and the audience gave a big “awww”. “Did you enjoy writing Howie the Rookie, Mark?” said the boy, clearly enjoying himself. “Well… well, yeah, I suppose I did,” said Mark. “I think you must have worked very hard on it” replied the son (“awww” said the audience again). He then asked Tom if he’d enjoyed performing in the play.

Tom later explained that he and Mark had prepared a version of Howie for Mark’s kids – but with all of the material unsuitable for children taken out. “It was about twenty minutes’ long” said Tom.

The conversation returned to family when I asked the two speakers what their plans are for the near future. Tom finished recording the fourth season of Love/Hate just before he went into a four-week rehearsal for Howie, so he said he was looking forward to getting back to his family: he spoke movingly about how his wife, who is also an actor, makes so many things possible for him. Mark revealed that he’ll have an original new play opening next year – which is a very exciting prospect.

Howie now heads to Edinburgh, and you’d have to assume it will do very well there.


When I did that post-show talk I was in the unusual position of not having seen the production (though I do know Howie very well and had chatted with Mark O’Rowe about it during the Synge Summer School). I finally got to see it on Saturday afternoon in the new Taibhdhearc.

It’s been said by many people already, but Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s performance is exceptional. When he said at the post-show that all he does during the interval is change his t-shirt, I thought he was being modest (which of course he was). But what really surprised me is that he was also telling the truth. He makes no attempt to suggest that the two characters are radically different from each other. In each part of the play, the voice is the same, the body language is the same – and if the performance of Howie seems more energetic in some ways, there are also some surprising similarities between the two roles.

In each performance, for example, there is a moment when Vaughan-Lawlor has to enact a dive – and in each section there is also a very long pause which shows that the character has suddenly realised something important about himself. These moments of affinity between the two characters fit the play’s themes (in which apparently everyday objects like the appearance of a green Hiace van take on a symbolic connotation) – but they also create powerful thematic and emotional links between the two characters.

This is not to suggest that we genuinely do think that the two men are the same as each other. What’s impressive here is that we know that they are different, simply because Vaughan-Lawlor tells us they are different people. This becomes a fascinating example of how acting works, of how we can be persuaded that this person called Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is both Howie and the Rookie, just as is he is Nidge from Love/Hate, Arturo Ui, Christy Mahon, Joseph Surface, Vasily Solyony, and many others. Like so many great actors, he is always both himself and the character he is playing.

The performances of Kelly and Shiels in the original Howie were memorable for many reasons. Kelly has a special ability to blend toughness with vulnerability – and this made his Howie  sympathetic, even as we might have been bothered by his selfishness, his casual attitude to violence, his misogyny, and so on. And Shiels captured a sleazy charisma in the Rookie that immediately made clear why women like him so much, and why men have so little respect for him. Anyone who can deliver his opening lines about breaking “hearts and hymens” without losing the audience’s sympathy needs a bit of charm. Shiels has plenty of that.

Vaughan-Lawlor’s performances of the two characters are very different. With any monologue play we need to know why we are in a theatre, hearing the story being acted out. In Faith Healer, we learn that at least two of the three characters are dead – so their monologue becomes a way for them to try to make sense of the tragedies that ended their lives. In McPherson’s Port Authority, we are told that the play is “set in the theatre”, so the reason the stories are being told to us is simply because we have come to the theatre to hear them.

In this performance of Howie, there is (as in Faith Healer) the fact of mortality – because (and this is a spoiler for those who haven’t seen the play) one of the characters is trying to work through the causes not just of his own death but also of the death of a beloved family member – while the other is trying to understand his own role in that tragedy. The story is being told obsessively because it’s a metaphor for what happens when people try to come to terms with tragedy: we replay a story  in our minds because we are desperately trying to find some way of understanding what happened and, perhaps, trying to find some tiny detail that might have led to a different outcome. In setting the stakes this high, Howie puts itself in the same thematic (and formal) space as Faith Healer – and has a similar impact, even though of course the two plays are very different from each other as well.

Vaughan-Lawlor’s performance is stunningly energetic (he spoke in the post-show about how, in the early rehearsals, he’d found himself completely exhausted half-way through the first monologue and wondered how he was going to keep going). He doesn’t just tell the story: he creates the world of the play, filling the space of the stage with jumps and shimmies and crouches and sudden changes of pace. There are times when it almost feels as if he’s dancing, with his words and his gestures matching each other with a rhythmic precision that seems almost like rap.

But the energy makes sense of the question of why the story is being told in the theatre. We sense in the rapidity of movement a desperation to understand something, and perhaps even an impulse to atone for something. The characters are telling the stories because they are memories that neither man can let go of. Vaughan-Lawlor on several occasions gestures directly to the audience: a raised-eyebrow, a half-wink, a smile in our direction – all are used to suggest that these characters are speaking to us, and that they assume we are on their side, that we understand their values and their actions.

And of course eventually we do.

This production of Howie feels very rich, very emotional, and Vaughan-Lawlor’s performance is both technically and emotionally impressive: to use a reviewers’ cliché (but I mean it literally), he delivers a performance that is unforgettable.


Vaughan-Lawlor is so impressive because of his ability to match his vocal and physical performances with an underlying comprehension of the emotional force and importance of the story. Everything he does makes sense not just in itself but also in terms of the play overall. In the post-show talk, Vaughan-Lawlor said that he felt like he’d only done the play about ten times (in fact, it’s closer to 60 at this stage). But to me it felt like he’d done it a great many more times than that: the performance has the kind of integrity, depth and coherence that you’d expect to see in a show that’s been running for a number of months.

That performance – especially the link between voice and body – reminded me of another terrific performance in the Galway Arts Festival, which is that by Olwen Fouere in Riverrun. And indeed those were the two performances that everyone was speaking about in Galway during the latter half of the week.

A phrase that was constantly being used about them was that they were “virtuoso performances”. I’m a bit suspicious of that term, partly because it’s another one of those awful reviewers’ clichés (“bravo!”), and partly because I’ve heard some great research papers by Aoife Monks on the subject of Irish virtuosity. But insofar as people meant the term as a compliment I would agree with it. And indeed, I think it’s also accurate in the sense that part of the pleasure of going to either performance lies in sitting back and just enjoying the acting: you don’t even necessarily have to pay attention to the play itself. With both Fouere and Vaughan-Lawlor, some of the enjoyment comes from repeatedly having one thought: I can’t believe how well they are able to do what they are doing.

That’s been a theme through what has been a great Galway Arts Festival: we kept seeing not just great work, but very skilful performances. In addition to Riverrun and Howie my favourite moment in the Festival was the gig by Grizzly Bear:  it was a pleasure to be able to listen to music being played by a group who are such skilled musicians and such excellent singers – I was listening to it, realising repeatedly that I was never going to have another experience quite like this again.

I know a lot of our Festivals try to build an identity in various ways – the Dublin Theatre Festival, for instance, is running  under the banner “come out and play” this year. But in this year’s Arts Festival, the unifying theme was artistic excellence: there was something  reassuring and genuinely inspiring about seeing so many artists who are  literally among the best in the world in their chosen fields.

And, yes, I’m including Vaughan-Lawlor in that category – because what his performance in Howie makes clear is that he’s not just one of the best actors in Ireland, but is genuinely world-class.


My discussion of the post-show talk, given at the start of this blog post, is based on my recollection of events. I didn’t take notes, and there is no transcript of the discussion. So the statements above are subject to later correction if they are proven to be incorrect, though of course I hope they are accurate.

The photo above of Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is taken from the production’s official website, and was taken by Patrick Redmond. The full gallery is here:

On Dramatic Mishaps and Mobile Phone Misuse in the Theatre…

Last night I went to see Yael Farber’s Mies Julie, a re-location of Strindberg’s play to contemporary South Africa. I found things to admire in the production: there was some beautiful lighting, intricate sound design, and two very passionate performances by the lead actors Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronje.

But for reasons that had very little to do with the production itself, I found it difficult to get into the play.

One explanation is that there were a couple of distracting mishaps early in the performance. About ten minutes in, Cronje, the actor playing Miss Julie, knocked a bottle of wine over, spilling it on a table that was clearly intended to be used for much of the rest of the performance (we’ve all seen plays like this, where a table becomes a kind of stage within the stage – I often see this in productions of Playboy of the Western World, for instance).

I knew that Julie was going to be sitting and lying on the table very soon – and that there was no way she was going to be able to do so without having to remark upon the big pool of wine that would be staining her dress, etc. So they needed to find a way to clean up the mess, quickly.

Normally you’d expect a performer to  improvise a way out of this kind of problem, but the power dynamics in the play made that very difficult. As in the Strindberg original Julie occupies a much more powerful position in the social hierarchy than John (her father’s servant) does. But because she needs something from him – emotional support, attention, physical comfort – he also has power over her. The play thus becomes an extended game for control between them. If he uses his physical strength against her, she will wound herself in return – thus attacking his own sense of being a protector of women, and thus attacking his masculinity. If she uses racist epithets against him, he withdraws his attention from her, showing her powerlessness – and the powerlessness of her words. Her tenderness is matched with his violence, her bitterness with his vulnerability. Both in script and movement, these exchanges are intricately choreographed.

In this kind of arrangement, the question of who is going to clean up the spilled wine is far from neutral. Julie would never clean up her own mess – but John will be very reluctant to reinforce her sense that she is the master and he the servant.

In the end, the actor playing John (Bongile Mantsai) cleaned up the mess.

A few minutes later, a worse problem arose. The table was now clean, and John had passionately thrown Julie onto it. In doing so, he knocked one of two wine glasses over; it rolled off the table and hit the floor. Normally in the theatre, you’d expect to hear a dull thud, followed by a bounce – everyone uses plastic glasses on stage, don’t they? But here the glass smashed loudly, sending large shards all around the radius of the table.

Neither actor said anything.

Immediately my attention turned to the fact that the performer playing Julie was in her bare feet. Her movements were stylised, often dance-like; she’d already jumped from and onto the table several times  – and had also been pushed and thrown around by John, so often was sent to parts of the stage without knowing exactly where she was going. At that moment, I wondered if she was aware that there was a huge chunk of glass just below the place where her foot was swinging from the table.

Again the problems of power impeded the solution of this problem – neither character could credibly clean up the mess, so neither actor seemed able to find a way to improvise a response to it.

The glass remained on the floor for the next 15 minutes or so. At one point, the two leads each grabbed particularly big shards and carried them towards a bin. At another, the actor playing John’s mother managed to sweep up some of the glass. But for most of the rest of the performance, the actors were trying to discreetly to kick glass out of the way, under the table, or off the performance area.

They key problem when something goes wrong on stage is this – the audience has to believe that the character has solved the problem, and not that the actor has solved the problem. And here this play is so tightly and intricately managed, that there was no space for the characters to fix things. So the illusion kept breaking down, at least for me.

I can’t say with certainty that the shards were made of glass, and of course have to make clear that I am only reporting how things seemed to me from Row F in the theatre.

But I found myself suffering throughout the performance from a bad dose of Eldest Child Syndrome. This is something that a lot of my fellow academics are plagued by: an ability to see a problem, coupled with a fear that if you don’t solve it, no-one else will. So every time Julie ran, jumped or walked towards a particularly big chunk of glass, I found myself imagining her being cut, the show being called to a halt, and the actress sent off for stitches and shots to Casualty. Instead of thinking about the play, I was wondering why a stage manager didn’t interrupt the performance, or why the actors didn’t just improvise a line that involved going backstage to get a dust-pan and brush.

In the end, of course, nothing at all happened. Cronje was fine. So all my attention to this issue was proven misplaced and inappropriate.

Such is the sad fate of people with Eldest Child Syndrome.

Bongile Mantsai, Hilda Cronje, Thoko Ntshinga and Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa in Mies Julie. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

I was also distracted by a domestic drama being played out in the row in front of me. As the lights went down at the start, I noticed the guy in front of me was busily texting on his phone. His wife or girlfriend (they were a young couple – late 20s, early 30s) glared at him to put the phone away, but he kept texting for the first five minutes of the performance, much of which was played out in the aisles of the auditorium, as the actors walked from the back of the theatre on to the stage.

Periodically the man’s phone would give three bright flashes which illuminated a surprisingly large space in the auditorium: this was another text message coming in. His partner asked him to stop a few times. He snuggled up to her shoulder after one request, smiling at her – she rolled her eyes, and he returned to his phone.

He clearly didn’t have much interest in the play, or in his companion’s request that he stop distracting her and everyone else around him.

Amusingly, though, once the play was over the guy was one of the first people on his feet to give it a standing ovation.

This kind of bad behaviour can happen in theatres everywhere, on any day of the week. But I’m always a little surprised when I see it happening on a Saturday night. While of course the vast majority of audience members are engaged and respectful of each other, it’s ironic that the night for which tickets are most expensive seems to attract a small number of customers who place very little value on what they are seeing.

I don’t want that comment to seem sanctimonious, but I did find quite funny the contrast between the male/female relationship being played out on stage and the male/female dynamic in the row in front of us.

So I found it quite difficult to give myself up fully to MIes Julie. I hope this doesn’t seem in any way disrespectful to the performers or play: to use the cliché, it’s not them, it’s me.

But the events of last night remind me again of how one’s experience of theatre is so frequently conditioned and influenced by the most arbitrary things: where you’re sitting, when you go, what you had to eat beforehand, how tired or energetic you’re feeling, who is sitting near you, and so on.

And of course accidents happen in the theatre and on the stage all the time: I’ve been at shows where people have collapsed or been taken ill, and I remember once being at the Abbey (before it was renovated) and watching a bulb fall from its ceiling and crashing maybe 60 feet to the floor below, just missing one of the people seated on the aisle.  The show (Hugh Leonard’s A Life, if I remember correctly) went on regardless.

I think this experience shows one of the major methodological problems with reviewing plays (not that I was reviewing the play last night – I was there entirely for personal enjoyment). My experience of Mies Julie last night was overwhelmingly influenced by factors that were unique to me, and unique to that particular time and place. But isn’t that true for everyone who sees a play, whenever they see it? And aren’t there always little mishaps, most of which are less visible than the ones I saw last night – missed lines, misplaced props, phones going off in the auditorium, and so on?

In other words, last night reinforced to me that it’s impossible to go to the theatre and have anything other than a  subjective reaction to what you see. Of course professional critics are obliged to strive towards objectivity, but they have to strive towards it because it’s not something they’ll ever achieve.

As for Mies Julie, it got a standing ovation last night, and has been widely praised by (almost) everyone who saw it. Clearly my reactions to it mean that I missed out on something special.

That said, so did the man with the mobile phone.

Staging Joyce: Olwen Fouéré’s riverrun

Last night I went to see Olwen Fouéré’s riverrun, a live performance of a section from Finnegans Wake. This morning I’ve been looking at reviews, of which so far I can only find two – one by Peter Crawley in The Irish Times and the other by Chris McCormack in his blog Musings in Intermissions.

The reviews are quite different from each other, but there are two words that appear in both. One is “academics” and the other is “frustration”.

I’d expected to see the references to “academics”. Chris suggests that Finnegans Wake is the kind of book that “has won the approval of the academics but not the public” in his opening paragraph, while in his first lines Peter says that the novel’s “warp and weft of smearing words, literary allusions, multilingual puns and rushing streams of consciousness are now primarily used to enslave academics.”

Both of those comments are fair but they encapsulate a problem that faces the reception and acceptance of Joyce.

I am not a Joyce scholar but I do teach an undergraduate lecture course on Ulysses every year. It’s something I love doing: it’s very exciting to see students discovering Joyce, overcoming their inevitable fears of Ulysses, and then starting to love the book. But I’m always struck by the fact that so many students are intimidated by Joyce, and sometimes choose not to take the course on that basis. And I’ve heard many people outside the academy express a similar fear, often in the form of resentment.

That fear is based on a belief some have that there must be a “right” way to read Joyce, a conviction that if you have enough knowledge to decode his works you will understand what’s happening, and can then smugly lord it over those who don’t know what’s going on. That belief is misplaced if not entirely unjustified, and it tends to provoke resentment in people: the prospect of reading Ulysses is for many the equivalent to the prospect of going to an exclusive restaurant where you know you’re going to be mocked by a snotty waiter for using the wrong cutlery

It is true that readers can benefit from some expert help before tackling Ulysses – even the ever reliable Bloomsday Book, which summarises the chapters, will help. But I would always suggest to students that you don’t really need any prior knowledge before reading Ulysses because the book will teach you how to read it as you go along. You need to be prepared to abandon your expectations, to be comfortable with the fact that you won’t understand everything, and you need to be prepared to wait. Often people who read the book alone abandon it in the third chapter Proteus, but once we meet Bloom in chapter four readers usually start to feel at home in Ulysses.

That is not to say the book is easy to read because of course it’s not: I re-read it every year for teaching and find new things every time, and I expect to continue doing so well into the future. And while I love many parts of it (I’m slightly obsessed with the Circe episode), others leave me cold. So again one of the exciting things about teaching Ulysses is seeing students forming confidence in being able to say that they prefer some chapters over others, since there is sometimes a belief that you can’t say anything negative about the book.

But the point I’d make is that the best way to read the book is to abandon oneself to it – to wait for it to reveal itself.

Finnegans Wake is of course a different beast, but the same core principle applies: if you go into it expecting it to communicate one central meaning to you, you’re going to find it impenetrable. But if you are prepared to open yourself up to it – ideally in a group of other people with whom you can read and discuss the text – then it can be rewarding. That’s not to say that its meaning can easily be discerned, because it can’t. But you can catch glimpses of possible meanings, especially if you are reading with people who speak languages other than English.

So while the academic industry around Joyce has done much to clarify his work for ordinary readers, it’s probably true to say that we academics may also be guilty of creating the impression that you need a PhD to understand Joyce’s works, especially Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

That leads to the second shared term from the reviews, which is “frustration”. Chris states that “the text [of Finnegans Wake] is completely discontinuous and non-linear … and such is the source of strong frustration in the audience”, while Peter advises his readers that “Your response [to riverrun] will be somewhere between abandon and frustration… depending on your need for the stepping stones of comprehension” (and he states that he himself leaned towards frustration).

I do understand the frustration that people feel when confronted with the Wake because again it’s easy to feel excluded by an elite who have access to the novel’s codes – or as Peter very nicely puts it, there is a feeling that the book is a “goading, multilayered game”.

All of this is just to make two points about riverrun.

The first is that you certainly don’t have to be an academic or Joyce specialist in order to appreciate it. And the second is that the way to avoid frustration is simply to accept that you will understand almost nothing that you hear or see during the performance.

So why go?

Riverrun is a 60 minute performance by Fouéré. She stands in front of a microphone centre-stage for most of the performance, reciting – incanting, really – the final section of the book. Enacting the figure of Anna Livia Plurabele, and knowing the Wake’s fascination with rivers, Fouéré moves with a (literal) fluidity.

We often hear of actors ‘embodying’ the text, but I’ve never seen an embodiment happen as completely as it does here. Fouéré’s performance shows that although we (academics) often treat movement and voice as separate skills to be taught in separate modules, they are not quite so distinctive. I came out of this performance with a better understanding of how the voice is part of the body, not just in the sense that Fouéré uses her full carriage for the creation of sound and tone, but also in the sense that there is a staggeringly coherent unity between movement and voice in her recitation of the text.

I thought I could detect the presence of Yeats in the production, since there are formal links here with Yeats’s plays for dancers (some of which were staged for Blue Raincoat by this production’s co-director Kellie Hughes). And I could sense also how Fouéré’s recent performances with Fabulous Beast have helped in the construction of this piece. I don’t want to suggest that she is moving around the stage in the way that she did in, say, The Rite of Spring (she mostly occupies centre-stage, before the microphone, here), but to propose that the experience here is being created through an interaction between movement and sound.

So one reason to go is that this is like a dance piece in which the music is created by the dancer. If you think of it not just as literature but also as dance,  you’re likely to have a more satisfying experience.

As for making sense of it… Often as I watched the performance, I found myself being reminded of dreams. If you’ve ever been woken in the middle of the night and had a conversation that you were sure was coherent – even though you were speaking gibberish – then you might recognise that experience in Fouéré’s recitation. Or, to give a slightly more morbid comparison, if you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who was seriously ill and on morphine, again you might find some traces of that memory in riverrun.  There are flashes of meaning, and the audience laughs with relief when they understand puns or anything more than five consecutively meaningful words. But there is a strange underlying logic – just as there is an underlying logic in dreams and hallucinations. I am not saying that viewers will be able to define that logic during or even after the performance, but they can probably acknowledge its existence.

One final reason to go is that this feels like a significant contribution to the iconography of Irish theatre and culture. Fouéré’s ALP is a clear example of woman as emblem, not just for the nation but also for the nighttime and the irrational. Just as Joyce’s words in Finnegans Wake explode outwards to have multiple possible meanings and resonances, so Fouéré’s body is at once ALP and Kathleen Ni Houlihan – not to mention Hester Swayne, Salome, Medea, Pegeen Mike, Lady Macbeth, and many others (and not just because Fouéré has herself played many of these roles). The fact that Fouéré is both speaking and embodying this character feels like a  cultural shift – like a reclamation: she’s not just an object to be looked at or to represent something else, but is also the author of meaning.

So I abandoned myself to riverrun, and was very glad to have done so. I am sure that people with an advanced knowledge of the text will find it very rewarding, and it will also reward repeated viewing, I think. But in and of itself, riverrun is unlike anything else I have seen, fusing dance, literature, theatre, vocal performance, sound design, lighting, and the presence of the audience into a strangely novel experience.

There is a trailer for the production on Youtube, which gives some taste of what to expect.

Stella and Lou, and New American Drama at the Galway Arts Festival

On Sunday night I went to see Stella and Lou at the Galway Arts Festival. It’s a new play by Bruce Graham, produced by Chicago’s Northlight Theater, which came to Galway last year with another Graham play called The Outgoing Tide.

Both plays share a similar interest in old age and its attendant dilemmas. In The Outgoing Tide, Frasier’s John Mahony played a man who is suffering from the early stages of dementia. Fearing the loss of his dignity and worried about becoming a burden to his family, Mahony’s character determines that he wants to end his life. The play becomes a debate between him, his son and his wife about whether he should be allowed to do that.

I chaired a post-show talk last year with Mahony, Rondi Reed, BJ Jones (who directed) and Graham. I’ve chaired a lot of  discussions before but none has ever been quite like this: the audience seemed both emotionally charged and ready to talk, and where normally some of that energy might have been caused by the celebrity of Mahony, here it was largely due to the subject matter. A number of people in the audience spoke about how the play had affected them personally, either because they knew someone who had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, or perhaps because they too worried about the prospect of the loss of memory. It was strange to find such a fusion of intellectual energy and emotional vulnerability in the room.

Graham himself made a strong impression on me. He is a former stand-up comedian, and it shows: in person during the post-show he was ebullient and charming. But he also had a very serious approach to the difficult subject of euthanasia. Rather than strongly propagandizing for or against it, he instead tried to assert the dignity of the person who chooses to exercise his or her will. We never felt that Mahony’s character was making a right or wrong choice, I think – but we did leave the theatre respecting his right to make it.

Stella and Lou deals with an issue that is less immediate and certainly less contentious – which is the question of what happens to people who find themselves alone in their late 50s or early 60s. The eponymous characters spend much of the play in debate about whether to get together: Stella is frightened of the prospect of being alone (of dying alone, really), and Lou is frightened of the prospect of loving again if doing so brings with it the loss of another person he loves (he is a widower). The play tries to find common ground between these two apparently conflicting fears.

It’s been said many times that our culture prioritises youth over old age. So it was interesting to be in a theatre where the characters on stage matched the age profile of the majority of the people in the audience, who were themselves mostly in their late 50s and early 60s. I kept hearing laughter of recognition in response to the play’s jokes about aging, and a bit of running commentary from the people around me about how the play reminded them of events and people in their own lives.

It had never really occurred to me before that theatre rarely focusses on aging in this way. Yes, there are many plays about dementia, especially in Ireland where it seems like every playwright has written at least one drama on that topic. But I don’t often see characters on stage who resemble so closely the people in the audience. Their accents are different and of course the play’s American setting introduces some cultural differences. But the play’s treatment of aging seemed to hit home.

I was also struck by how good it felt to watch some strong American acting. Two members of the cast have played with Steppenwolf, and it was refreshing to see that style being performed so well. It’s difficult to describe this kind of acting without either fetishising it or making it seem bland, but I’m referring here to a kind of heightened or stylised naturalism, whereby the actors talk in ways that seem absolutely credible, even though in reality no-one ever talks or moves like that. Everything is just slightly heightened, from the rhythm and cadences of delivery to the movement around stage. If you wanted to be unfair you could describe this as acting in ALL CAPS, but there’s plenty of room for subtlety in there too.

The style is also evident in the choice of play, which is an 80 minute resolution of a dramatic problem. The setting is the real world and if there is something a bit too reassuring about the raising of problems only to persuade the audience that they can be wrapped up in less than 90 minutes, the discussion is usually stimulating and engaging.

The introduction of interesting American work has been a specialism of the Galway Arts Festival over the years. Bruce Norris’s Purple Heart is on in London at the moment, but it was seen in Galway some years ago when Steppenwolf brought it here. And one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had at the Arts Festival was a play by Craig Wright called Orange Flower Water back in 2004. Wright was one of the writers on Six Feet Under, and his play explored the ways in which sex and love ought to complement each other but can instead cancel each other out (rather like Six Feet Under, in fact).

Stella and Lou won’t be to everyone’s taste but I appreciated it for its focus on plot, character, discussion, realism and – most of all – first-rate acting.