Bringing James Joyce’s first novel from page to stage

Arthur Riordan found uncanny parallels with his own life in Fermoy while adapting Joyce’s first novel for the theatre, writes Marjorie Brennan

James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is full of memorable scenes, but one in particular encapsulates the preoccupations and class snobbery of Simon Dedalus, father of the central character, Stephen.

When Mr Dedalus realises he may no longer be able to afford the fees for the esteemed Clongowes, he fulminates against the idea that his son attend a Christian Brothers school:

Christian brothers be damned! said Mr Dedalus. Is it with Paddy Stink and Mickey Mud? No, let him stick to the jesuits in God’s name since he began with them. They’ll be of service to him in after years. Those are the fellows who can get you a position.

For actor and writer Arthur Riordan, who has adapted Joyce’s first novel for the stage, the scene had a significant biographical resonance. Riordan grew up in the North Cork town of Fermoy, where his family lived above his father’s electrical shop on Patrick’s St, and he attended St Colman’s CBS, where Joyce’s father went to school.

Arthur Riordan was on of the founders of Rough Magic theatre company in 1984

“One of the characters that helped me find a way in to Portrait was Simon Dedalus, In ways, he is like a character from another book altogether. He talks a lot and has a very colourful turn of phrase, he is like a character from Dickens or a 19th century novel. I found his voice quite easy to get and any extra dialogue or exposition that was needed, I tried as far as possible to put in his mouth, which is funnily significant because Joyce’s father went to school in Fermoy, so I’ve always thought that when Stephen’s father talks about sending him to the Christian Brothers with Paddy Stink and Mickey Mud… that’s my school he is talking about.”

Riordan’s interest in the theatre was awakened when he went to Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied English and history, and joined the student drama society, known as the Players.

“My initial ambition had been to be a journalist but I got waylaid by Players in Trinity. The ’70s was a very exciting time, you could still feel the literary Dublin of the ’50s, when you went into the pubs or coffee shops,” he says.

Riordan has been steeped in the theatre since, co-founding the pioneering theatre company Rough Magic in 1984, and combining acting with writing. He has previously adapted the work of Ibsen and Flann O’Brien but bringing his version of Portrait to the stage for this Rough Magic production was quite a different prospect, he says.

“Transferring something from the page to the stage… it becomes a different work. Therefore, you have to find ways to remain faithful to the original but also ways for it to make sense in a new medium. With Joyce, that responsibility feels a little bit heavier. When I was adapting Flann O’Brien, it was an unfinished novel that had never been published [Slattery’s Sago Saga], which gives you quite a lot of freedom. Whereas, with Joyce, he wrote every word for a purpose, so what ones do you take out?”

Riordan was also able to draw on Stephen Hero, Joyce’s uncompleted precursor to Portrait. This was helpful in Riordan’s attempts to flesh out some of the female characters in the adaptation.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man premieres at Dublin Theatre Festival before touring to other centres, including Cork.

“Stephen Hero had a good deal more dialogue for the women characters, which was very handy. It is very interesting, for whatever reason, that the women characters have far less to say in Portrait than in Stephen Hero. I think that was to in some way show the young Stephen’s distance from women — and Joyce was critical of that. There are beefier parts for the women characters [in the adaptation]. In any case, there are eight actors in the play, four male, four female, so there is a lot of switching of gender roles in any case. There won’t be a Joyce mother standing silently in the corner or anything like that,” he laughs.

While Riordan says his first duty as a writer is to the story, he also wants the play to be fresh and relevant to a modern audience.

I feel very strongly that Joyce didn’t write this as a period piece. He wrote it as an experimental piece of modernist fiction. I’d like it not to have a nostalgic feel about it — I want it to feel as edgy, new and entertaining to a modern audience as Portrait did to its original readers.

Acting and writing have proved to be well-suited companions for Riordan. “I’d certainly like to think they feed into each other. As an actor, I think writing helps me to take a broader view, have a better notion of the character’s whole story rather than focusing on how you should say an individual line. Because that way you don’t see the wood for the trees. Acting certainly feeds into writing, and gives me a good sense of dialogue and what works on stage, and that covers so much. There are many writers who write for the stage without ever having been involved in the theatre, but it must be so much harder. Having been involved in theatre certainly gives you a head start.”

It seems like Riordan has achieved the perfect balance in his career. Is he glad he didn’t become a journalist? “It wouldn’t have suited me. I’m no good at deadlines, as any director will tell you,” he laughs.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man premieres at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, this Friday as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. A subsequent tour includes Theatre Royal, Waterford, Oct 19-20; Everyman, Cork, Oct 22-24; Glór, Ennis, Oct 27; Siamsa Tíre, Tralee, Nov 2-3

Selected highlights of Dublin Theatre Festival

Ruth Negga in Hamlet at the Gate.

Hamlet Gate, Sept 27-Oct 13

The gender of the lead character may still be male, but ‘he’ is being played by Ruth Negga in a production directed by South African director Yael Faber.

The Lost O’Casey Sept 26-Oct13

ANU have long been one of the most innovative theatre companies in the country, and their latest production spins a ‘lost’ O’Casey play through the context of modern Dublin.

Druid Shakespeare: Richard III Abbey Theatre Oct 3-13

The Galway-based company continues its exploration of Shakespeare’s kings.

Bluebeard’s Castle Gaiety Theatre, Oct 12-14

After The Last Hotel and The Second Violinist, his operatic collaborations with Donncha Dennehy, Enda Walsh embarks on another musical adventure with a new production of Béla Bartók’s reimagining of the exploits of the dastardly Bluebeard. It’s a fairytale, but with a suitably Walshian dose of darkness and terror. Sung in Hungarian, with English surtitles.

Nassim, Project Arts Theatre, Oct 2-5

Nassim Soleimanpour’s acclaimed show White Rabbit Red Rabbit has been performed more than 1,000 times, starring famous names including Stephen Fry, Ken Loach and Whoopi Goldberg. In this intriguing production, an award-winner at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the Iranian playwright brings a different performer on stage each night, with the script an unknown entity, contained in a sealed box.

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