Riverrun: A new take on Joyce's Finnegans Wake

THERE are two ways to read Finnegans Wake: aloud, letting the words wash over you, or with slow methodical parsing, going word-by-word, painstakingly teasing out the implications and associations of Joyce’s polyglot puns and neologisms.

Riverrun: A new take on Joyce's Finnegans Wake

Actually, you could just as easily argue there is only one way to read Finnegans Wake: by combining these two methods. It’s a daunting prospect; and little wonder that, while Ulysses is the work of Joyce’s that many pretend to have read, most are happy to plead ignorance of his final novel.

Luckily for that large cohort, there comes Olwen Fouéré’s Riverrun. Her adaptation and performance follows Anna Livia Plurabelle’s final meditation on life at the closing of the book, a voice that embodies the River Liffey flowing out of time in a death aria that is nonetheless timeless renewal, taking the reader, or in this case the listener, back to the start of the book, via “Howth Castle and environs”.

The ‘Wake’, says the silver-haired and healthily tanned Fouéré, speaking between runs of the show in Dublin, has always been her book, more so than Ulysses. “Finnegans Wake has got a timelessness to it. Maybe I’m influenced by all those Bloomsday images, but I find Ulysses much more location and time-specific. I find Finnegans Wake is very much, for me, his European book, and of course I’m very much a hybrid as well,” she says, referring to her Breton heritage and west-of-Ireland upbringing.

Riverrun had its first outing at the Galway Arts Festival. It opens at the Kilkenny Arts Festival this evening, before transferring to the Dublin Theatre Festival in October.

The show has been honed now, in the fire of live performance, but continues to be a work in progress, fittingly so, since that was Joyce’s name for the Wake during its 17-year period of composition. “It’s a constant process, a non-fixed thing. It will always remain fluid,” says Fouéré. “The initial idea was to make a more rigorous structure, but when I approached it in this way, I began to realise that, no, it had to be more like jazz, where you have a rough score, a sense of the journey you are on, and a few markers in case you get lost, but it must always have that moment-to-moment feeling.”

Audiences might be very glad to outsource the actual reading of the Wake to a performer like Fouéré, to have her meet the demands of finding a voice for Joyce’s remarkable words. But Fouéré feels more of a connection with the audience when she’s performing Riverrun.

“It works best when there’s a symbiotic relationship between the audience and the performer,” she says. “I always describe it like I’m a cell in a cluster of cells. We all have some bit of agency, but really we’re all being swept along by it.”

The reaction, she says, has been positive, though she couches her impressions by noting that those who dislike a show are less likely to share their opinion.

“The best was someone talking about having amazing dreams that night,” she says.

The tumbling associations around Joyce’s words, mimicking the unconscious mind, strive to capture the surrealism of dreams, the strange shape of night. And while the reader may parse, the listener has no choice but to go with the flow (pun, of course, intended). “For people who are very cerebral, this is harder; you really must let yourself go into it,” says Fouéré. “So much of our culture seems to be predicated on deciphering and understanding, but for me understanding can be an experiential thing.”

That letting go of the rational side was a central part of Fouéré’s own creative experience on Riverrun. “There was this hunger to read everything about it. But soon you realise you’d drown in that, not only the book, but the world around it.”

Fouéré says she limited herself largely to Roland McHugh’s extremely cogent and illuminating annotations, and John Bishop’s Joyce’s Book of the Dark: two field guides which do much to make the Wake approachable.

“Partly, Bishop’s approach was the approach I took,” she says. “You dip into it and you author your own way through it. I really feel that it is offered to us in that way. I started at the last page, and worked backwards. I was originally only going to do the last 10 pages, but felt that was a little bit too lyrical, too Molly Bloomish. I thought, no, it needs the grit, it needs to be deeper; so I wanted to go back to the source of this river, almost to where you feel it coming up through the rock.”

What emerged from her intuitive delving, her magpie raids on the text, has left Fouéré, in her own words, “awed”.

“It’s this extraordinary thing that has emerged, very much in its own form. It’s a real lesson in what art reveals. This thing is coming from not us, it’s something out there that I feel at best we’ve created the space for.”

If the audience is capable of entering that space, they are in for a wild ride with Fouéré.

nRiverrun is at the KIlkenny Arts Festival until Sunday. See www.kilkennyarts.ie. The show runs during the Dublin Theatre Festival, October 2-6. See www.dublintheatrefestival.ie

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