Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man review: James Joyce's coming of age refuses the move to stage

Arthur Riordan's kaleidoscopic new adaptation of Joyce's novel takes the novelist at his word. Photo: Ste Murray

Pavilion Theatre, Dublin Theatre Festival
Sep 28-Oct 7

★ ★ ★

There’s a moment in James Joyce’s autobiographical novel when young Stephen Dedalus, on the verge of joining the priesthood, is having second thoughts. A passionless lifetime in a religious order reminds him of lonely days at boarding school. Instead, he holds onto that old adage: “Non serviam,” or “I will not serve”.

That motto, used by Stephen to test the politics and religion annexing Dublin at the beginning of the twentieth century, is also an accurate manifesto for Joyce, whose mythic and fragmentary prose defied tradition. Theatre productions sometimes struggle to adapt that groundbreaking approach for stage. One rare highlight was playwright Arthur Riordan’s beguiling adaptation of Dubliners, co-written by Andrew Synnott, which found a wealth of new meanings as an opera.

In his kaleidoscopic new adaptation of Joyce’s novel, Riordan takes the novelist at his word. “The personality of the artist refines itself out of existence,” says Stephen. Indeed, as he grows older, the role is passed between members of Rough Magic’s skilful ensemble, as if there were a vocation to be awakened within each of us; a portrait of the artist as everyone. 

Director Ronan Phelan guides us through the play’s stages of youth. Karen McCartney’s Stephen is easily overwhelmed, beholding a childhood of political arguments and romantic heartbreak. In adolescence, he wrestles with sin and longing in the shape of Amy Conroy. Most strikingly, as an assured young adult played by Martha Breen, Stephen discovers the liberating power of self-expression. 

For all the play’s faithfulness to the novel’s artistic credo, it’s hard to imagine how any production could sustain its multiple role-playing, the chunks of art theory that play to the rhythms of a philosophy lecture, or how to place the part of the Narrator without it feeling expendable. Stephen’s detached parents, nicely played by Conor O’Riordan and AoibhÊann McCann, even fade away without ceremony. 

Phelan seems to tackle this how he knows best: a freewheeling production, where a stressful family dinner can be expected to be seen against Shakin’ Stevens’s Merry Christmas Everyone. Unfortunately, some of those embellishments can impress while losing focus, like the neon red and blue strips of Katie Davenport’s minimalist set, preferring stylish abstraction over clarity. 

Yet, some touches are poetically defiant. Stephen’s epiphany about his desire takes arresting inspiration from Dirty Dancing. Never mind the subtle irony that a statue of the Virgin Mary domineering the stage appears impersonal and faceless, while the artist is given several profiles. 

Those are some graces when Joyce’s coming of age is refusing the move to stage, though its spirit is present right down to Stephen’s final transformation. A path to rebellion has been paved.

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