Last night, I saw the U.S. premiere of Olwen Fouéré’s theatrical adaptation of the end (and other selections) James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the piece was one-woman show, supported by sound effects and innovative lighting. Fouéré is a virtuoso with the spoken word, stretching out and moulding Joyce’s text with her voice, into a ‘swelling and surging” soundscape. Her performance is technically perfect: every modulation of tone is precise, and the overall effect is–despite being asked to watch an hour of performed Joycean “nonsense”–highly engrossing.
At the same time, as a long-term Wakean, I left the theatre feeling, not exactly disappointed, but like I hadn’t seen what I’d expected. For me, Fouéré adaptation and selection rendered a somewhat familiar text unfamiliar. (Hence maybe a sense of disorientation similar to encountering Joyce’s book for the first time.) Simultaneously, however, her performance seemed constantly to try to combat incomprehension and disorientation. It was like having someone trying to explain the text to me by emphasizing certain words. Hence a tension: familiar text rendered unfamiliar but then digested and rendered familiar. Perhaps this is a good example of the uncanny (all well and good for a haunting passage like the last one of FW), but the effect for me was overall not a particularly Joycean one. Rather, what Fouéré’s performance added with setting up this tension was a kind of stress, a desire to be understood, that doesn’t seem to exist in most of Joyce’s book (with the exception of maybe the Mutt and Jeff section). In fact, the stressfulness of the performance, twinned with the black and white aesthetics, often recalled not so much Joyce, but Dantean inferno of Beckett’s plays, and particularly Endgame and a one-man performance / adaptation of Watt by the Gate theatre, which I saw in Philaldelphia three years ago: http://www.annenbergcenter.org/about/releases.php?id=236.
This leaves me with three questions. (1) Is Joyce’s last work actually that similar to Beckett’s work?– so similar that a performed late-Joyce simply appears Beckettian? (There are, of course, plenty of biographical reasons why that might be the case.) (2) Has Beckett so completely dominant the ways of acting, as well as our understandings and recognition of the Irish avant-garde theatre, that any adaption of a text like Finnegans Wake would inevitably fall into a Beckettian mode? (3) Or is this simply an aspect of Fouéré’s production and her stress on haunting voices, low lights, stress, etc.? In which case, what is it in Joyce that she missed / didn’t represent / overrode?
Riverrun is also on tonight and tomorrow night (18th and 19th Sept. 2014) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Fishman Space.