Director Jimmy Fay has been a fan of James Joyce since his teens, when he read the partly autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Fay says there is theatricality in the story of Stephen Dedalus, a fictional alter ego of Joyce. Fay is directing a stage adaptation of the novel, by writer, Tony Chesterman, for the New Theatre in Dublin. After a critically acclaimed run there last year, Fay is bringing the play to Cork’s Everyman Theatre on March 3.
Fay has cast a woman, Lauren Farrell, as Stephen Dedalus. “There’s a kind of vulnerability about her, an innocence and an intelligence. The book is experimental, so to do a straight adaptation of it would be impossible. You have to find a way in. In theatre, the more experimental a piece is, the more you try to engage the audience in an emotional and intellectual way. There is no difficulty in having Lauren play Stephen,” Fay says.
The play focuses on scenes that relate to the “awakening of Stephen’s consciousness. He throws off the shackles of the Church and State and kind of forges his own way. I find that really interesting, because we’re always struggling with tradition. When Joyce was writing, it was really radical to reject the Church and the experiment called nationalism.”
Fay says that the play largely follows the same structure of the novel. A character called Cranly, based on Joyce’s real-life confidante, JF Byrne, acts as a narrator. “In a sense, Cranly [played by Marcus Lamb] is kind of framing the play. He is able to give theatricality to some of the prose in the book. He’s also there to make it clear to the audience what is going on.”
Key scenes in the novel are presented imaginatively. Fay says he is proud of his take on the scene on Dollymount Strand in which Stephen Dedalus has an aesthetic epiphany. He sees a girl wading in the water and is overcome with the desire to convey her beauty through his writing.
“We have an amazing dancer that we filmed for the epiphany scene. She is a bird-like girl. Audiences may not even notice the film — but they will feel it,” he says.
Fay says that the play “still feels current. You have debates raging about religion and sex in the book. That still goes on. Joyce was ahead of his time. It seems, at times, like we’re running to catch up.”
What Fay calls the fire and brimstone scene “is in parts Beckettian and Mark O’Rowesque. The flamboyance of the language there is really important. Charlie Hughes does a great job as the priest.”
Fay describes the latter half of the novel as esoteric. “There’s a long discussion that Stephen has with Cranly, where he lays out what he is feeling. I’ve tried not to make the scene too abstract. There are religious overtones to the scene. But, hopefully, what I’ve done with that scene makes it crystal clear as to what is going on. But I don’t want to talk down to the audience. I want the audience to enjoy the play and if they go away wanting to read more Joyce, then I’ll be happy.”
Fay says that Stephen Dedalus is not initially likeable.
“But I liked him an awful lot when I read the book at 17. I want to remember that. When I reread the book, I felt the character was more off-putting. But I’m drawn to his hunger for knowledge. And he is still a rebel with a cause.”
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