The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Riverrun Through It: Imagining & Reimagining Finnegans Wake
Stephanie Boland , March 28th, 2014 11:40

With 'riverrun', the newest in a long line of artistic adaptations of Joyce's famously-less-than-permeable novel, currently playing at the National Theatre Stephanie Boland considers the difficulties of adapting and interpreting Finnegans Wake and Olwen Fouéré's production

O, tell me all about Anna Livia!

If one was to try and find in Finnegans Wake something as pedestrian as a first word, ‘riverrun’ would most likely have to do. When most people open James Joyce’s final novel for the first time, it is ‘riverrun’ that greets them: riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us back by a commodious vicus of recirculation… From the start the Wake confuses. Who or what is Eve and Adam’s? The pair from the garden of course; and also, in this case, a pub. What’s a ‘vicus’? It’s the word for a ‘neighbourhood’ in ancient Rome but as importantly – or perhaps more so – a nod to Giambattista Vico, the eighteenth-century Italian philosopher whose cyclical account of history underpins much of the Wake’s logic. (Hence ‘recirculation’). Fine; but then where are we going back to? Where have we been? There’s an oft-quoted ironic remark Joyce made about Ulysses which claims the book has ‘so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries’. Even Ulysses, though, opens with an identifiable character in Buck Mulligan. Ulysses is one thing; Finnegans Wake is another altogether. In certain editions – if one doesn’t skip straight to the text itself – an introduction by Seamus Deane precedes the ‘riverrun’: it warns that the book in your hands is, ‘in an important sense, unreadable’.

Unreadable, maybe, but not unadaptable. Despite its portmanteaus, its sixty documented languages and its laissez-faire approach to plot the Wake offers much to potential interpreters. In fact, the novel’s unconquerable complexity is precisely the thing that makes it so ripe for reworking.It is its complexity, for instance, that allows one to approach it with abandon, safe in the knowledge that a comprehensive reworking of the text is all but impossible. Nobody is expected to capture, or even understand, the whole of the book (in fact, laughing at people who think they’ve figured the whole thing out is something of a parlour game for Joyce scholars). Released from the pernickety burden of faithful adaptation, musicians and artists drawn to the Wake are free to innovate. And innovate they have: John Cage’s musical tributes are perhaps the most famous of the Wake’s derivative works, which also feature video, stage performances, comics, a silent film, a 1966 jazz cantata and a fountain in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Fortunately, the complexity of the book also means there are as many aspects to consider as there are potential mediums; although its textually ambiguous nature means selecting one interpretation always comes at the expense of another, there is at least never a shortage of material.

Like Dublin’s fountain, Olwen Fouéré’s performance, riverrun, takes as its subject one character (such as she is) from Finnegans Wake. The show’s flyers advertise her as ‘the voice of the river’, but she is many other things besides: the Liffey, certainly, but also a pirate, a cleaner, a chicken, a wife and mother. Her name is Anna Livia Plurabelle. Like her husband – Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, or ‘HCE’ – she is a giant of a character who represents, with the mythological gravity that the Wake specialises in, every woman (plura belle). Like her Ulyssean cousin, Molly Bloom, ALP occupies the final chapter of Finnegans Wake. It is this final chapter which forms the core script of riverrun.

Entering the National Theatre’s little sister, The Shed, one finds Fouéré already present (in a nice nod to the novel’s first page, we enter as if stumbling on something already in progress). She unlaces her golden brogues – a visual pun? – and walks, barefoot, across salt crystals which coat the stage. Contained by an undulating electrical lead on one side, the crystals could be a dried up riverbed, or sand, or snow; Fouéré’s steps leave footprints in them as she walks to the curved black microphone in which the lead culminates, rising from the dark floor. Then she begins Anna Livia’s monologue with a deep, reverberating Sanskrit incantation: Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas! It is the final chapter of the long book of the night, and it is dawn. The changing light in The Shed goes from ‘dim dusky’ to golden over the course of the performance, stopping along the way to occasionally plunge Fouéré into darkness, occasionally to highlight her face under a blueish spotlight. Otherwise, the staging is remarkably minimal. As co-director Kellie Hughes explains, the design process involved ‘eliminating as much as possible’ and ‘getting back to simplicity’. True to this spirit, there are no trite sound effects of waves or running streams here. Alma Kalliher’s music instead invokes abstractly the sense of being underwater: choosing from what she terms ‘a pallet of sounds’, Kalliher improvises the soundtrack of each performance, bringing the river from roaring to barely-audible as Fouéré’s energy swells and trickles. The effect is glorious. One particular highlight comes while watching Fouéré mutter with Beckett-tribute franticness, hands over ears – all is silent until she removes them, at which point the water suddenly rumbles, prompting her to clasp them back to the sides of her head with alarm.

Clever as the staging is, however, it feels almost indecent to award it even this many words, so undoubtedly is Fouéré the focus of the production. Her delivery of Joyce’s overfull prose slides from rapid-fire to languorous; her movements are at one moment sinuous and balletic and at the next jerky, manic, overwrought as she pantomimes different sub-figures from the text. It is a truism of Finnegans Wake that it is most easily accessed by being read out loud, and Fouéré’s pitch-perfect tone provokes delighted laughs at lines which might easily be impenetrable on the page. At times it is even a little uncomfortable to watch: Fouéré is not afraid of appearing downright ugly when the text calls for it, with darting eyes and lolling tongue. The keen sense of music which Cage and others have extracted from the Wake also gets an airing, with some lines – snatches of popular songs – sang, and Fouéré at one point gently pacing while whistling a stilted version of ‘It’s A Long Way to Tipperary’. She manipulates what little props exist to exceptional affect: having removed her shoes at the beginning, she partway through unbuttons the top half of her grey suit and swings it in a wild rhythm, its path through the air creating a downdraft which sends the salt crystals flying. To memorise a whole chapter of Finnegans Wake is feat enough; to perform it with such exhilaration is startling.

So startling, in fact, that it might prompt us to revise our picture of the text’s ALP. Although the Dublin statue poses her in grey, and half-submerged in water, the Anna Livia of Finnegans Wake is said to have ‘auburnt streams’ for hair, and be dressed in a variety of odd costumes which include potato earrings and a ‘clothespeg’, ‘tight astride on her joki’s nose’. There is something of the music hall about these descriptions, and before attending riverrun it would be difficult to imagine why anyone would elect to dress this publican’s wife in a suit. One look at Fouéré, however, and the ridiculousness of trying to stage such a vision becomes immediately apparent. If one is attempting to invoke a woman who is at once every woman, details are only cumbersome: the pulled-back hair and minimalist tailoring of this river suddenly seem to be the only viable choice. Against such austere visuals, Fouéré is able to call up every aspect of ALP which the chapter invokes. In fact, having seen the play once at floor level, I was so impressed that I returned to watch it from a seat in The Shed’s balcony and was amazed to see a whole other side to her performance emerge; from below Fouéré’s ALP seems to be a towering queen of a woman, but from above a fraught actress desperately acting out skits against the clock. Every angle of her is there: the cleaner, the mother, the wife, the river. She is the only person on stage but she is many women. In a novel which forces any adaptation to pick a stance, riverrun has somehow managed to include them all.

There is no chance for the National Theatre’s publicity to contain her, and of everything about this production it alone falls flat. Outside of the Shed, a chalk-board wall invites audience members to write down the word they found most striking in the performance. It’s nice – even, in its way, beautiful – and drew a queue. But it hits the wrong key: the elegance of Fouéré’s performance is that, while retaining the precise lyricism of Joyce’s prose, it refuses to be mired in reading the Wake at the level of words. It doesn’t trip over the dense language as generations of scholars have found themselves doing, or snag on his clever portmanteaus; although you can hear them in the performance, enunciated vibrantly, the language is only half the point. The play, like Finnegans Wake itself, ends hanging in mid-sentence: ‘A way a lone a last a loved a long the’. It is the next unspoken word from which the play takes its title, the first word – if one wants a first word – of the text. The flow it signifies is the hardest aspect of Finnegans Wake to pin down, but Fouéré, against all odds, performs it. If you’ll indulge me to end on a personal note: as a close-reader of the Wake I have known Anna Livia for years. I never thought I’d see her. In a small space on the banks of the Thames, in all her glory, I did.

riverrun is playing now at The Shed at the National Theatre