Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
My review of The Corn Exchange's production of Dubliners by James Joyce coming up just as soon as I deal with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat ...
" He thought that in her eyes he would ascend to an angelical stature; and, as he attached the fervent nature of his companion more and more closely to him, he heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognised as his own, insisting on the soul's incurable loneliness. We cannot give ourselves, it said: we are our own"
- James Joyce, 'A Painful Case'
This "incurable lonliness" of the soul is the thematic linchpin of Dubliners - James Joyce's series of short stories which follow the unfulfilled and disconnected inhabitants of an amoral city. One can see the appeal of the text and its acute observations of Irish life to The Corn Exchange – who have sought the nuances of a contemporary Ireland in recent years. The challenge for director Annie Ryan, writer Michael West, and the ensemble is to find a visual form that can raise these nine stories (six didn't make the cut) from the page and sustain itself for three hours.
The cast step out on Joe Vaněk’s stone medieval set, individual, their faces clad in Commedia paint. A sorrowful violin rises from Conor Linehan’s majestic sound design before they take leave, all except for Jack Hickey, who kicks off the evening as an inquisitive youth haunted by a priest’s death in The Sisters. A sailor’s courting of a trapped girl in Eveline is conducted more sweetly than imaginable from the page by Nick Lee, making the story’s conclusion all the more devastating. Mark O’Halloran speaks wittily as a refined frustrated societal critic in A Painful Case and shows heartache at having pushed away his brief friend (an amiable Derbhle Crotty) further away than he could have predicted.
Joyce’s exploits of misfits, hypocrites, and use of salacious language is fuel for the fire that is the company’s trademark aesthetic as they draw on Commedia dell’arte stock comedic tropes. Humour is a wise method to sustain a production of this length, and is even released in places in the text where one mightn’t have initially thought (who would have thought that O'Halloran would be able to draw laughs from his portrayal as the sinister man at the end of The Encounter?).
Ryan directs with divine fluidity as the narratives flow from each other. Spaces between stories, the gaps in the literary text as it were, are imbued with poignant effects. Jack Hickey’s shaken youth at the end of The Encounter is stopped in his tracks by the arrival of Janice Byrne’s Eveline, another lonely soul, before moving on. Linehan’s swelling arrangement sets up an empty stage for The Dead before Ruth McGill walks onstage, treating us to Gretta singing The Lass of Aughrim. Joyce can conclude the narratives quite abruptly, and Ryan gauges these. At the end of Counterparts, where an emasculated drunk returns home and beats his son, Sinead McKenna’s lighting catches a monstrous silhouette of the man as he raises his stick to strike the boy before going to blackout.
Seeing the production poses the question of what aspects of Irish society have not really changed since the early twentieth century? In The Sisters we hear the story of a priest whose duties were a struggle to him, and when Eliza describes Father Flynn laughing madly to himself in the confession box without considering the possibility of mental illness it illuminates the lack of public awareness to the issue at the time. Indeed, support facilities for priests is one of the current-day criticisms of the Catholic church. When Mr Holohan issues his ultimate offence to Mrs Kearney in A Mother, here raised to glorious crescendo by Crotty and Mark Lambert, suggesting that the master negotiator should act more like a ‘lady’, we’re dealt a comment on gender politics which isn’t all that removed from our society today.
The Corn Exchange succeed with their production of Dubliners by converting Joyce’s densely literary text into material for the company’s stockpile of tricks and humour. Seeing these stories invigorated theatrically is to further realise their mastery as glimpses into an Irish psyche desperately searching for belonging.
What did everybody else think?