Joyce adaptation stuns at the National Theatre



Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce stakes a serious claim to being the most unreadable novel of all time. Written in a lawless idioglossia that relies as much on inane puns and silly wordplay as it does on actual language, it combines T.S Eliot’s rich network of highbrow allusion with Beckett’s dead-end Absurdism, throwing in a spot of cheeky, uniquely Joycean smut for good measure.

If it’s difficult to read, it’s even more difficult to stage – but that’s exactly what Olwen Fouere attempts, in her mesmerising sixty-minute adaptation of the final monologic section of the novel. Voicing the River Liffey as it winds its way to the sea, the writing is beautifully hallucinogenic, a mood that is captured here to a tee. Everything seems,l ike the language itself, knocked just a little off its axis – even the microphone stand is warped into Daliesque loop.Fouere, in an androgynous grey suit, oozes this sense of otherness as she intones the opening lines, a Sanskrit invocation of dawn: “Sandhyas!”. 

Her eldritch voice blends subtly with the microphone buzz and Alma Kelliher’s exquisite, painterly soundscape to produce an alien hum. Writhing and contorting in time with the rhythms of the language, she demonstrates an extraordinary physical control that belies her aging but wiry frame. 

Of course, typically for Joyce, things don’t stay so serious for long – quickly, we go crashing into chirpy Irish vernacular, and fantastical nonsense constructions that make us laugh without really beving sure why (“It is perfect degrees excelsius. The torporature is returning to mornal”). Fouere delights in this irreverent humour, relishing the faux-explanatory send-ups of incomprehensible academicese. 

Stephen Dodd’s lighting deftly handles the swift and frequent changes in tone, zooming in to light only Fouere’s face with a Not I-style claustrophobic intensity. By the climactic meeting of river and sea that ends the sequence, the space was cloaked in the special silence of an utterly enthralled audience – no mean feat for an hour-long monologue on a bare stage. As the final line hung in the air, cut off mid-sentence to form a cyclical loop with the novel’s opening words, Fouere held her poise for just a few moments – she was just as enraptured as the audience.