Theatre Review: The Dead at Smock Alley Theatre


Having debuted in London, this reading of James Joyce’s renowned short story by Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, etc) has been brought to Ireland by the Dublin Theatre Festival. In the midst of a growing number of adaptations of Joyce’s story, it’s appropriate that the festival has ensured that an Irish audience, too, could witness this latest raising of The Dead.

Of course, Joyce’s tale is, among other things, a ghost story, which should make it perfect material for director Conor McPherson.

McPherson’s own plays and films have often centred on the supernatural and the best of them — The Weir — is one of the finest Irish ghost stories of modern times.

It is perhaps strange, then, that McPherson doesn’t really capture the more eerie qualities at work in Joyce’s story. Instead, with its strait-laced design, the reading seems a little too deferential to Joyce as national institution. It challenges the text very little.

Nevertheless, on its own terms the show is very convincing. This is, after all, a reading, and, with his careful diction and range of facial expressions and hand gestures, Gillen strikes up an easy and welcoming intimacy. The down-tempo musical accompaniment of Feargal Murray on piano also adds a distinctive texture of loss and melancholy, even if there is no clear conceptual link between the moments of music and the narration itself.

Gillen’s delivery comes alive during passages where Joyce describes a character’s features or where comic dialogue is to the fore. Elsewhere, at times, he boldly underlines telling segments of the text, as when the story’s protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, comments, “What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women?”

Finally, while the vital closing section of the story is handled very well, it is hindered considerably by Gillen’s hushed and speedy delivery of the dialogue belonging to Gabriel’s wife, Gretta. This greatly undercuts the emotional impact of the latter’s unexpected revelation to her husband, the significance of which is the very core of Joyce’s story.

  • Final performance tonight


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