Edinburgh Fringe 2014
Olwen Fouéré, one of Ireland’s leading theatre-makers, performs her acclaimed adaptation of the voice of the river in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In a unique approach to Joyce’s extraordinary sound-dance, Riverrun embodies the river Life (Liffey/Anna Livia Plurabelle) who generates a powerful transformative energy as she dissolves into the great ocean of time.
Based on James Joyce’s stream of consciousness novel Finnegan’s Wake, giving voice to the Irish river Liffey as it journeys towards the sea, Olwen Fouéré’s performance gives this complex text life and energy. It is almost impossible to understand anything in this production in terms of a narrative. Occasional English mingled with sounds, nonsense and half-speak make it feel that you are almost watching a song or hearing a poem in a foreign language.
The set is simple, a sculpted, twisting, microphone stand in front of spilled salt, curving a path across the black stage. The actor (and writer of the piece) begins by slowly walking across the stage, removing her shoes and beginning. A slight, sinewy woman with a dramatic head of platinum hair, she is an incredible performer. Energetic and captivating, she creates some extraordinarily effective water sounds by amplifying her breath in the microphone. Her angular physicality and expressive gestures add weight to her words and in some ways it is as though she is dancing.
For the strength of performance and commitment to her craft, Olwen Fouéré deserves five stars; she is deeply impressive and talented. However, I do have my reservations about highly recommending a piece that is so entirely impenetrable. I appreciate that the original novel is famously dense and it is probably an impossible challenge to make much more sense of it in a theatrical context than this production did. Yet what that means in essence is that what you end up with is something quite high brow and exclusive, perhaps mainly of interest to scholars of Joyce.
I must admit that beyond appreciating the skill of the performer and lyricism of the sounds, I felt quite frustrated by the entire absence of any sort of narrative or ability to understand what was going on. This could have been tolerable for a shorter period of time, but by the end of the hour I was really flagging. I would recommend this show to anyone who wants to see a master of her craft and who can get caught up in the poetry and sound of the text, but if, like me you are a fan of storytelling, even in its loosest form, this show is probably not for you.