Corn Exchange and _ A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing_ at Dublin Theatre Festival

Well, this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival programme is out today, and I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time digesting it. There are some obvious highlights  – Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet,  Ganesh Vs the Third Reich, and the NTS’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner on the international side; and on the Irish side, new plays from Deirdre Kinahan, Tom Murphy, and Mark O’Rowe, and new productions from Anu and Pan Pan, among many others.

But by far the biggest surprise – and the most intriguing prospect – is that Corn Exchange plan to adapt Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing into an eighty-five minute performance that will star Aoife Duffin (below). My immediate reaction upon hearing this news? “But that’s impossible – they’ll never manage it”.

A Girl is A Half Formed Thing

But then, after a moment’s reflection, it occurred to me that I’d had this reaction to news of previous Corn Exchange productions several times before.

I never thought it would be possible to put on a stage adaptation of the film version of Lolita – yet they did this very memorably in the Peacock in 2002, with Andrew Bennett playing Humbert, Ruth Negga (below) playing the title role, and David Pearse and Ciara Simpson completing the ensemble. The strangeness of Humbert’s narrative – and Nabokov’s distance from it – was made theatrical by the company’s use of commedia and live musical accompaniment. Annie Ryan, in other words, had found a theatrical language that translated the novel’s most important characteristics into something physical and dramatic.

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A few years later, I never thought they’d be able to adapt Dubliners for a production at the Gaiety – firstly because it’s a collection of short stories, secondly because the theatre was so big, and finally because the impact of the stories lies not (just) in plot or characterisation but mostly in language and what it does to the reader. But again Ryan and Michael West found a way to make it work on the stage,  allowing the stories to accumulate a theatrical energy that corresponded to the collection’s transitions from childhood to maturity, and by retaining as much as possible the original language. This had the impact of highlighting the performative elements of Joyce’s stories – the songs that are sung, the stories that are told, the public spectacle  – the fact that Joyce was working within a tradition that was both literary and oral.

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I never thought that they’d be able to do Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms in Ulster accents last year, and I was wrong about that.

And I was sceptical when I heard back in 2006 that their production Everyday was being seen as an attempt to do in the theatre what filmmakers like PT Anderson were doing in movies like Magnolia (or Haggis’s Crash or Soderburgh’s traffic): showing how an entire community’s stories overlap in surprising ways. Well, I was wrong there too.

Then there was the time I heard about the idea behind Dublin By Lamplight and… well, you get the idea.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I again have no idea how Corn Exchange are going to pull off something that seems impossible to me.

The story McBride has to tell – about the upbringing of a young woman and her shifting attitudes to  sex, identity, autonomy, mortality, religion – is difficult, but it can be put on the stage, especially, I’d think, if there is a careful enough focus on the relationship that  the woman has with her brother. But how can the stage accommodate what McBride does to language and form?

McBride does something shocking with syntax and language. Her sentences are jagged, written as if torn out of some longer, more coherent narrative. They spill out and overlap as if being forced from a body.

It’s notable that so many people state that reading the book feels like a physical experience – for once, the reviewers’ clichés about the text being visceral or feeling like a kick in the stomach or the narrative being heart-breaking actually feel accurate: McBride’s language has a kind of muscularity that hurts sometimes. And the language does actually change the reader, permanently: you have to learn how to read the novel, and that means forgetting what you know about reading. You can’t skim; you can’t fill in blanks. You just have to let the words accumulate and the meaning will make itself felt, sometimes painfully so.

It’s an impressive book, and a very unsettling one. It’s also a difficult book – difficult to read in many ways: it takes time and effort, and the content is upsetting.  But it’s massively rewarding, and I consider it to be one of the major Irish novels of our time. People have compared it with Molly Bloom’s soliloquy – and while that should be seen as a compliment of sorts, I think it also runs the risk of obscuring the fact that McBride is not just one more Irish novelist trying to out-Joyce James Joyce. She is doing something that no-one has ever tried before.

But here’s where I wonder about the adaptation. Perhaps what makes the novel so rewarding is that it’s never fully possible to identify the features of the novel in a literal or realistic sense. We never learn the protagonist’s name; we may be able to guess or infer where she is from or where she studies or lives – but we’re never told for sure. We are never fully sure whether individual events in the novel are real or fantasised or dreamed or anticipated or feared. The fractured language is an expression of the protagonist’s individuality but it also works to defend that individuality – to reject the ways in which her mother, uncle, community, and society all seek constantly to name her, to narrow her down, to fix her in place with words. She doesn’t want to be named: she doesn’t want to be formed by language but to use language to disguise herself.

So what happens when you turn the narrator – who is just a broken voice – into a human being on a stage? What happens if the words become physicalised and literalised? Can the text’s ambiguity survive the transition to the stage?  Can the many ‘half-formed’ features of the novel be given form?

Well, of course they can. There is one useful model already in existence:  Beckett’s Mouth in Not I, another text that Half-Formed Thing can be compared to, while standing on its own merits. But of course Annie Ryan isn’t going to just give us a mouth in the darkness.

But it’s pleasant to be faced once again with the conviction that Corn Exchange can’t possibly achieve what they are setting out to do – and the happy expectation that I’ll be proven completely wrong, yet again.

Here’s a link to the production page: https://dublintheatrefestival.com/Online/A_Girl_is_a_Half_formed_Thing

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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.

Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, National Theatre London

I just saw a very good production of Eugene O’Neil’s Strange Interlude at the National Theatre in London. As you’d expect from O’Neill, it’s massively ambitious, encompassing several decades in the life of Nina, a woman who is unusually self-possessed and sexually assertive (for a female character in a 1920s American play, anyway…).

The play is also formally experimental, using asides to present the inner thoughts of  the characters. The ensuing contrast between what people say and what they’re thinking is often very funny, but the cumulative effect is to create the impression that in some ways O’Neill is trying to reverse engineer Shakespeare.

Shakespeare in his earlier plays took the inner self and externalised it, not only through the use of soliloquies but also, and more interestingly, by personifying human emotions. Hence, jealousy took the form of the villain John the Bastard in Much Ado, who in turn became the far more sophisticated and interesting Iago in Othello – until in Winter’s Tale the jealousy took place entirely within the mind of Leontes, and was all the more horrifying for that. Where Shakespeare started by externalising emotion and worked his way in towards psychological credibility, O’Neill is working his way out – perhaps trying to dramatise the inner life of his characters in the way that Joyce had done with Ulysses a few years earlier. But unlike in Joyce – and unlike in Shakespeare – O’Neill’s characters’ thoughts are sometimes so dense and intense that they don’t always ring true when spoken aloud: our minds move faster than our voices ever can, after all.

As a result of that technique, some of the exposition in the play feels a bit awkward, but the overall effect is very interesting, adding depth to characters who might easily be played as caricatures, and eliciting far more sympathy for the play’s mildly ridiculous author-figure Charlie than he probably deserves. And the contrast between how the characters appear to others and what they feel about themselves is both funny and poignant.

And the acting is very good. The lead role is played by Anne-Marie Duff. I’ve only ever seen her perform live once before, in Druid’s 2004 production of Playboy of the Western World. She seemed a bit uncomfortable in that role: she was playing opposite Cillian Murphy, and she seemed oddly subdued opposite his hyperactive Christy – and was also overshadowed by Aisling O’Sullivan’s impish Widow Quinn. But here she’s very impressive – those old reviewers’ clichés about actors ‘owning the stage’ are apt, since she confidently dominates every scene from start to finish. It’s difficult to explain that dominance by reference to one specific thing that she does: there is the decisiveness of her movements, the unobtrusive but unignorable melody of her voice, her skill in adding weight to the apparently inconsequential, and much more. But, to use another reviewers’ cliché, the most impressive aspect of her performance is that we never notice she’s acting.

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Also impressive as Charlie is Charles Edwards, who manages the tricky balancing act of being the butt of many of the play’s jokes as well as the focal point for much of the audience’s sympathy. And as usually happens in the Littleton, there are lots of impressive scene changes on that lovely revolving stage in there.

Eugene O’Neill is sometimes claimed as an Irish playwright – though, of course, this usually happens only in Ireland. Strange Interlude is one of his least “Irish” plays, though its lengthy consideration of the ethics of abortion would certainly have an impact in the country today. But I still found myself regretting the fact that we rarely see these big American plays – the loose baggy monsters of the theatre world – in Ireland.

Since the turn of the century, most of Arthur Miller’s famous plays have appeared in Ireland (The Crucible at the Abbey and Lyric, All My Sons at the Abbey, View from the Bridge, the Price and Death of a Salesman at the Gate). Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar is about to be produced at the Gate, and there have been a couple of productions of Glass Menagerie by smaller regional companies. And the Gate staged Eccentricities of a Nightingale a few years ago. Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo have appeared a couple of times; Boston Marriage has been done twice (by B*spoke and the Gate), perhaps because it’s not a very typical David Mamet play. And I think I’ve seen three productions of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in Ireland: one at the Gate in the mid-1990s, another in the Galway Arts Festival starring John Mahoney a few years later, and then Druid’s production with James Cromwell in (I think) 2008. And one of the first shows I ever saw at the Abbey was The Iceman Cometh with Brian Dennehy, just over 20 years ago. So we do get to see the American ‘classics’ from time to time, but rarely see anything more unusual.  I’d love to see plays like Miller’s American Clock or The Archbishop’s Ceiling, and almost anything else by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.

I know that the economics of the Irish stage have an impact here: most of those plays I’ve mentioned call for a large cast and would be unlikely to attract a large audience without a star actor in (at least) one of the leading roles. And Strange Interlude is three and a half hours long, and Irish audiences are reputed to get cranky when faced with the prospect of missing their last bus home (aka last orders).

But I was struck tonight by the Irish echoes in Strange Interlude – the similarities between O’Neil’s women and Synge’s female characters, the hints of an affinity with O’Casey’s use of language (I could understand how the two men would end up being friendly a few years later)… And just as Irish writers influenced O’Neill (or were similar to him in interesting ways), I’m often surprised by the way in which so many Irish dramatists state, when asked who their influences are, that Tennessee Williams is one of the major figures in the development of their work.

Well – in the meantime, Strange Interlude is well worth catching if you are in London.