Theatre review: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Pavilion, Dun Laoghaire

By Alan O’Riordan

Joyce’s use of tone is one of the most remarkable aspects of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Through it, we see the world through Stephen Dedalus’s eyes, in ways that change as he grows up. There’s a playful aspect to it, too, which emerges as Stephen reaches adolescence. Joyce allows Stephen all the idealism of youthful longing. At the same time, he manages to undercut this. It’s a wise, gently mocking kind of hindsight, of the older man for his younger self.

Ronan Phelan, staging Arthur Riordan’s adaptation for Rough Magic, mimics this effect in a surprising way. At a party, he has Stephen sing Charles Aznavour’s ‘She’, a song as drippy as the teenage Stephen.

Amy Conroy and Paul Mescal in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Picture: Ste Murray

This reference is in keeping with Phelan’s wider approach. Alas, it is nowhere else as successful. While Riordan has been faithful and judicious on the page, Phelan’s staging is unwisely irreverent. His tone doesn’t undercut just the po-faced Stephen, but Riordan’s whole enterprise.

Stephen is played at five ages by five of the ensemble, each passing along an Italia ’90-era Ireland jersey to signify the change.

The soundtrack of synth pop continues the theme; the Christmas dinner scene unfolds amid paper crowns; the religiosity of Stephen’s world, and his own devout period, is introduced by a cheesy youth group, belting out ‘Here I Am, Lord’.

Yes, it will take you back, but it spares us Stephen’s sincerity of faith, and, crucially, the power of significance of the institutional church. Yes, the ‘faith of our fathers’, in all its pomposity, seems ludicrous. But should a production like this be in such a hurry to remind us?

The book’s essence is Stephen Dedalus’s experience of his world. This production’s essence lampoons that world, or ignores it. Thus, the passion of Stephen is rendered passionless. His “non serviam” is no big deal, since on Phelan’s terms there’s nothing worth serving in the first place.

We leave him almost literally kicking his heels, dancing under glitter confetti. This is James Joyce — off, to forge in the smithy of his soul “the uncreated conscience of his race” in one of the greatest artistic enterprises of the 20th century. Here, it seems more likely he’ll head for Disneyland Paris.

Touring nationwide, including Everyman, Cork, Oct 22-24

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