DUBLINERS is the perfect collection of short stories. You couldn’t think of a more daunting book to put on stage. “Actually, you could,” says Michael West, who’s doing just that. Finnegans Wake. Or Ulysses. Dubliners is the easy one. What appealed to us was that it is the gateway drug to Joyce.”
West is one half of the Corn Exchange Theatre Company’s creative team. The other is his wife, Annie Ryan, who founded the company in 1995 and who is directing Dubliners, which opens the Dublin Theatre Festival on Sept 27. A festival whose tagline is ‘Your City, Your Stories’ really couldn’t have a better curtain raiser.
The theatre festival is co-producing the show, making it something of a statement for the new artistic director, Willie White. “Willie wanted to do something Irish, a signature piece for his first festival,” says West as he sips ginger beer in a cafe overlooking Wicklow Street. “Willie’s job is to say no to people. And he said no to us: you haven’t got any money, you haven’t got any time. Then he came back to us, and said, actually, I’ve had a think about it and I think it could happen. Then we were the ones saying, no, you’re right we can’t do it.”
But do it they did.
Dubliners represents a departure from recent opening nights at the festival, where polished travelling shows of acrobatics and world music have featured. “The opening of the festival has been a kind of crowd-pleasing filler. There’s a feeling that the festival doesn’t start until the Monday,” says West. “If you ask people how long is the festival, they say two weeks. But it’s actually two weeks — plus the weekend we’re on. The thinking was get something charming, spectacular, circus or dance. That happened for good reasons, but Willie said that was one thing he wanted to change. He said, why should the festival pay for a slick, touring show? Wouldn’t we invest in ourselves, back ourselves, do just as good a job? He understood our idea and pitched it back to us: it’s about now, about Dublin, about Irish audiences, about investing in what we have, not buying stuff in — that’s all very supportive.”
Joyce’s writing presents several problems for the would-be dramatist. For one thing, the power of the stories often rests in the poignant gaps between the self delusions of a character and the truth as apprehended by a sensitive reader. In some stories, the claustrophobic nature of Dublin life, the famous “paralysis” which Joyce examines, is captured not in outward drama, but in seething mental anguish. The reader waits with Farrington in the story Counterparts for the Sandymount tram: “Full of smouldering anger and revengefulness. He felt humiliated, and discontented; he did not even feel drunk; and he had only twopence in his pocket. He cursed everything. He had done for himself in the office, pawned his watch, spent all his money; and he had not even got drunk.” In other stories, like The Dead, the drama is similarly interior: turning on Gabriel Conroy’s reflection that he is not, in fact, the love of his wife’s life.
Elsewhere, Joyce achieves a remarkable empathy and closeness to his characters by having the apparently neutral, objective narrative voice veer towards the voice of the person being described. Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, is famously “literally run off her feet”. Not because Joyce doesn’t know how to use the word ‘literally’, but because Lily doesn’t.
These effects are what give Dubliners its freshness for the contemporary reader. That shiftiness of narrative voice is a world away from the detached moralising and sentimentality that marks the generation preceding Joyce. Yet, these effects are peculiarly writerly: how does one begin to translate them to the stage? As it happens, a look at Corn Exchange’s back catalogue provides some answers.
What West calls “embodied narrative” has been a hallmark of the company’s trademark updating of the commedia dell’arte style, where characters speak to the audiences about themselves in the third person. “When it comes to doing Joyce, the narrative voice is not stable. Sometimes it’s infected by the character or the thing it’s describing, that is a problem,” says West. “But we have that experience of experimenting with third person narrative, it’s a very effective tool to break down the fourth wall, and it means we can keep Joyce’s brilliant sentences.”
West nods to 2004’s Dublin By Lamplight, his fantastical, lurid re-imagining of the birth of the National Theatre. “It was quite a heightened style of language, but the characters were usually talking about themselves only. In Dubliners, the perspective can hop across the room suddenly. It’s quite hard to describe, but it does follow on the work we have done. It’s a challenge, but that’s the whole game. You’ve got to keep the tension between the way in which the story is told and the story itself, so you can see the gaps. You’ve got characters like Mr Duffy in A Painful Case, with such a precious opinion of himself, but it’s a fatal misconception. So, you have to see that gap, and how you construct it is really fun.”
It’s not just Dublin By Lamplight that can be seen as good preparation for tackling Dubliners. West also wrote Everyday, in 2006, sounding a dissonant note at the height of the boomtime. It followed a cast of characters around Dublin who were not the winners in what seemed a winner-take-all society. West calls that play “a response to enforced happiness”. Like Dubliners, Everyday is an anthology of stories, a model West was “not unconsciously following”. Everyday interweaves its characters’ stories, something West “toyed with” for Dubliners. “But we jettisoned that quickly.
“The ongoing theme of the book,” he says, “is people being forced to act out roles they’re not suited for. These people are miscast in life’s great pageant.
Whether like Evelyn trying to be a romantic heroine, or in The Boarding House, where Mrs Mooney is consciously playing this part of the outraged mother, working herself up to it. A lot of the stories are painful examinations of people, like Mrs Sinico in A Painful Case, a wannabe Ibsenite heroine, but really, a bit of a beaten down drunk by the end. That’s where we theatricalise it. They are all putting on masks — that’s a metaphor, now, not a production conceit!”
West’s Dubliners is, in effect, a selection from Joyce’s collection. About eight and a half stories will be staged, he jokes. But he’s keen to keep audiences guessing which eight and a half. The Dead will not feature. But the remaining selection reflects Joyce’s scheme (he loved schemes) of representing the stages of life: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life. “We had to preserve that,” says West. “The stories are iconic: old, yet completely fresh because they haven’t been done on stage, at least not in our generation. They are beautifully made and you just have to trust that.”
* Dubliners is at the Gaiety Theatre, Sept 27-30 (Preview Sept 26). Further information: www.dublintheatrefestival.com