Riverrun’s Olwen Fouéré talks to Tinteán

riverrun_adelaide_festival_bannerFEATURE: an EXCLUSIVE interview with OLWEN FOUÉRÉ

Conducted by Frances Devlin-Glass on 18 Feb. 2015.

The Irish theatre sensation, Riverrun, adapted, directed and performed by Olwen Fouéré to huge acclaim in Dublin, London, Edinburgh, comes to the Adelaide Festival in late February and to the Sydney theatre Company for a 2-week season in March. The recommendation is to get your seats early as this show books out wherever it goes.

This one-woman show, an adaptation of Part IV of Finnegans Wake, had its genesis in Sydney in 2011 when Olwen was touring with the Abbey Theatre’s international tour of Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus. Asked to read some Ulysses for Bloomsday in Sydney, Olwen did so on condition she could read the extraordinary last few pages of the Wake. Joyce specializes in high endings featuring women’s voices – think of Molly’s soliloquy, the most loved and most familiar final coda of Ulysses. Anna Livia is an equally celebratory coda to the Wake.  If readers and hearers love anything in the Wake, it is likely to be its ending – where the river generously and full-heartedly gives herself to the ocean and to the sky in an act of procreativity that is also a death. For this seasoned veteran of the stage, it was a ‘Eureka’ moment, in more senses than one. In a delightfully Joycean move, she relishes returning to Sydney where it all began. The ending of the copyright stranglehold in 2012 held by Joyce’s grandson, Stephen James Joyce, and her own dedication and creativity made it all possible. The dawn of more spoken and performed Joyce. We’ve been so lucky in Australia not to have been so constrained (the change to the copyright law was not retrospective here).

Riverrun was first performed at the Druid Theatre in Galway, Olwen Fouéré’s birthplace, in 2013, and has since toured to huge acclaim at the National Theatre (London), the Edinburgh Festival, the Next Wave Festival in New York, Princeton and Dublin, where it sold out. The production shortly to open in Adelaide won high plaudits and significant awards for staging and acting in Edinburgh and Dublin.

Olwen Fouéré is one brave performer. Her list of credits includes many challenging roles in edgy plays (the title role in Stephen Berkoff’s production of Wilde’s Salomé, and many avant-garde plays – Marina Carr has written two plays specifically for her). Her focus has been on the modernist canon and new contemporary works. It requires a flexible mind and body to move from Beckett to Joyce, and Moreover, she works in both theatre and film, and as well in opera and multi-media works, and collaborates with composers, artists and creative lighting specialists.

Riverrun is not only her own adaptation from the watery parts of a watery novel, but is a collaboration with a soundscape artist (Alma McKelliher) but early versions of the play had her also directing herself. She brings to Australia a co-director (Kellie Hughes) who is a huge benefit in tech rehearsals (they can swap viewpoints), a soundscape engineer, a lighting operator, and a team of producers (led by Jen Coppinger), and to some extent the play must adapt to the spaces on offer. Her list of multiple collaborations on various projects with particular artists (visual artist, cinematographers, choreographrs, playwrights, sound designers) suggests an actor who is highly committed to her craft and experimentation and to free to play in creative spaces in quite remarkable ways, and who is loyal to fellow practitioners in allied and complementary art forms. A team player.

Having myself participated in many adaptations of Joyce, I was interested to explore her principles of selection from Joyce’s most challenging novel. Not surprisingly, she reports working backwards from the ending. Ends are beginnings often in Joyce, and especially in the Wake which vaunts its own circularity and promulgates a cyclical version of history, challenging the social darwinist assumption of linear progress, so this strategy proved productive. It is also telling that she has relinquished the notion of character (though Anna Livia, the washerwoman is indeed one of the characters in the novel, the wife of HCE), in favour of a focus on the liquidity and vitality of the river, thus making a transition into abstraction which no doubt allows for multi-layered symbolism – of depth and shallowness, of movement and flow. In Book IV, the starting point for her play, the Liffey (which becomes an analogue every river in the world in the Wake, and for the progress of human life) passes Chapelizod, meanders in a leisurely way through Dublin, making its goodbyes to the city before joining the sea in Dublin Bay and being taken up again to fall in the source country at Poulaphouca. Her selection of elements is, she believes, guided by this fluid movement and assisted by sounds, association, resonances and rhythm, and the collaboration with her soundscape artist, Alma McKelliher. Her collage of sounds draws on heterogeneous elements, including NASA recordings of the sounds of the sun and the earth. A truly cosmic conception of time and space that one imagines Joyce would understand intimately.

Olwen talks of the debt she thinks Joyce owed, and she in turn owes, to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, with its celebration of life and renewal (‘calling all daynes to dawn’) and its acceptance of death as a passage into another mode of life, but of course, Joyce puts his own more secular spin on that. The river is an analogue for the soul and body passing through the very quotidian adventures of the everyday, in a very particular city that is every city, Dublin.

I can’t wait to experience this subversive call to new life.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is the founder of Bloomsday in Melbourne and has been reading and teaching Joyce more and more slowly and with increasing pleasure for many decades.