A river runs through it

Shelley Marsden speaks to leading Irish theatre-maker Olwen Fouere about her unusual experimentations with Joyce

Since copyright on James Joyce’s works expired at the close of 2011, adaptations of Dubliners, Ulysses, The Dead, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man have all got good innings, particularly in Ireland. Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s notoriously esoteric novel was not one of them – until Olwen Fouéré came along.

The striking, white-haired actress is behind the unique one-woman performance riverrun, an experimental, spoken-word performance which adapts the voice of the river in James Joyce’s impenetrable Finnegans Wake, coming to National Theatre pop-up The Shed.

riverrun is not an adaptation but rather Olwen’s exploration of one section of the text: ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’. In it, the character of ALP, transfigured as the River Liffey, traces her journey from falling rain droplets that swell into a river and flow through the city before disappearing into the bay at dawn breaks. A force of constant renewal, the river Life (Liffey/Anna Livia Plurabelle) generates a powerful transformative energy as she dissolves into the ocean of time.

Olwen confesses immediately that she’s never actually managed to digest Joyce’s book in its entirety, but has always drawn to its strange, ephemeral language.

The idea for a show came to her in Sydney, on a world tour with another production when she was asked to do a reading for Bloomsday. “I said I’d read a bit of Ulysses”, she says with a sigh”, “as long as they’d let me read a bit of Finnegan’s Wake. “

So she read the last page, which by anyone’s standards is extraordinary and portrays a river disappearing into the ocean, with a last sentence that ends abruptly: “Away, alone, alas, a loved along the – “

Olwen knew in her gut that she’d have to create a show about it: “Sometimes ideas come that you don’t even want. They’re like monkeys on my back and the only way I can shake them is work on the piece.”

Finnegan’s Wake took Joyce about seventeen years to write, and Olwen spent two years developing riverrun, working backwards from that stunning last page, trying to find the voice of the river within the text. She gave public readings until she finally got to her definitive version – the theatrical equivalent of jazz improv with Olwen, mic in hand, a commanding, androgynous presence on stage,.

“My persona is all the rivers”, she explains. “She becomes the River Liffey, and then all the rivers of the world, including your body’s bloodstream. There’s a sense you’re inside some giant body; you’re coursing through its veins and changing it as you go along, letting go of the past and bringing in the new energy of the future.”

Rather than being physically or emotionally demanding, riverrun has its own definite, forward-moving energy, with a pulse that propels you along, says Olwen. But part of the appeal for her was being able to explore the incommunicable – the meanings in-between words, which tapped into her own background as the child of a Breton couple.

She says: “I grew up in a French-speaking house in an English-speaking environment and always had a slight language conflict; I felt like a different person in each language. But then, when I was in between languages, i.e. I wasn’t speaking, that’s where the true self lay. The language of our unconscious, the pre-verbal world we are all born into, is very like the language in Finnegan’s Wake. I love that riverrun somehow gives expression to that place.”

Olwen hopes she’s gone some way to making Joyce’s book (which he himself called the ‘book of the night’; of the unconscious) more accessible, but don’t expect her to supply any meaning to it –it’s about surrendering to non-meaning.

“My task is to bring people to a point where they let go of their need for narrative and meaning, and go with the flow”, she says. “Some find that hard, but most get there in the end. Sometimes people feel very emotional after a performance. It helps tap into a primal energy.”

Riverrun is very physical – though Olwen says she’s no dancer (“I actually have two left feet!”). Irish audiences will remember her collaborations with Michael Keegan Dolan of Fabulous Beast, the most recent being The Rite of Spring/Petrushka. She says the choreographer, who she approached first ten years ago and forged a great relationship with, is something of a touchstone for her.

For the full article, see this week’s Irish World newspaper (issue 1 March 2014).

Riverrun is at The Shed, National Theatre, March 11 – 22. Visit www.theshedtheatre.co.uk.




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