Riverrun: Melodio[sities] in pure effusion

Theatre Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Olwen Fouéré takes her audience on a journey down-river. Photo by Tony Lewis.

Olwen Fouéré takes her audience on a journey down-river. Photo by Tony Lewis.

Riverrun, devised, co-directed and performed by Olwen Fouéré at the Adelaide Festival, seen on 1 March 2015.

From the moment one entered the theatre, one was aware of a highly disciplined performer. The wide stage was bare but for some white sand (and about 20 footlights on each side of the stage) which created the River Liffey, and Olwen Fouéré, the sole performer, was alone and still. It was a long wait for a 500 + seat theatre to fill for a performer who would then remove her shoes and leap into action at high intensity with a ceremonial greeting in Hindi to the day, ‘Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas! …. Calling all Daynes. Calling all daynes to dawn‘, and it was an intensity which she sustained in rhythmical and melodic rallies for over an hour. It was a bold and brave virtuoso performance.

The performance of an adaptation of the final sequence of Finnegans Wake has been well honed in the best theatres in Europe and the USA. It gave us the river flowing through Dublin, greeting the day. Coincidentally, it is the day of its own death as it debouches into the sea. But of course, that is to simplify the experience too much. This Wake experience was by far the most immersive I’ve ever had.

I found myself thinking about Joyce’s extreme games with language, and inevitably the question arises: is it performable? Communicable? How does one confront the extreme challenges of Joyce’s opacity? These are questions which must bother any sensitive performer who rises to the challenge of Joyce’s last work. Does one edit for comprehensibility? How does one select what to bring forward? To some extent, Olwen’s choices to go with the River rather than the characters was unexpected but very clarifying: by defamiliarising the angle of vision and the choice of narrator, it put the audience in a new relationship with the text. In that choice lay the boldness of the piece and Olwen is not at all risk- averse. She is full of courage and enthusiasm for the project.

It struck me that she invited her listeners to participate in a familiar condition: that of the very young child relaxedly learning her world, in this case Joyce’s world, and the language that shapes it and makes it meaningful. I felt I was being submerged in what is effectively a foreign language (in reality an extended distorted version of English and many other languages). Having a grandson of two, I’m observing this language-learning process with curiosity and delight. I found myself in his shoes, surrounded by words, without fear or panic, and in the certain knowledge that with Fouéré’s gentle guidance, sense would come soon enough. The ‘ah-ha’ moments reward and titillate the child and constitute reward enough for now and promise of more. Sometimes language exhilarates, sometimes it laves one benevolently, or inspires awe but it is also true that the listener may sometimes experience it as malignant … and everything in-between. Language is bigger than all of us but central to our lives: we communicate and miscommunicate with it; we play and joke with it; we are instrumentalist with it. In this show, the audience is invited to simply surrender to the medium, and take what one can, without angst-ing about what it might mean. It means presumably, but quite what? And Joyce is the master of the invitation to play with language, to read actively and attentively. It certainly helps that his word-play is being pre-digested by an actor who has done her own very active job of sorting, sifting, finding narrative threads to weave into a story of the river, and interpreting what emerges as a paeon to life itself, to the blessings of waking up and surrender to death.

Joyce is a master of the delectable, just-decipherable one-liner. What’s not to love about the following linguistic and aurally pleasing plums and puns?

the windr of a wondr in a wildr is a weltr as a warble of a warbl in a world

or

the urb it orbs

or

may he live for river

or

The first and last rittlerattle of the anniverse

or

When is a nam not a nam whenas it is a.

or

Good safe firelamp! Hailed the heliots.

But this show offered much more than clever puns and parodies of well known expressions/titles of songs/etc., and I defy anyone to be dry-eyed when the River (any river, but principally (‘princeably’?) the Liffey) exhaustedly, having greeted the waking city, makes its return to Dublin Bay and surrenders its identity in a longed-for embrace, which is both an ending and a promised resurrection. Anna Livia, both the river and an ordinary washerwoman on it, and a longing, yearning wife to a probably faithless husband (HCE) laments her end:

And we’d be married till delth to uspart. And though dev do espart. O mine! Only, no, now it’s me who’s got to give. As duv herself div. Inn this linn. And can it be it’s nnow fforvell? Illas! I wisht I had better glances to peer to you through this bay-light’s growing. But you’re changing, acoolsha, you’re changing from me, I can feel. Or is it me is? I’m getting mixed. Brightening up and tightening down. Yes, you’re changing, sonhusband, and you’re turning, I can feel you, for a daughterwife from the hills again. Imlamaya. And she is coming. Swimming in my hindmoist. Diveltaking on me tail. Just a whisk brisk sly spry spink spank sprint of a thing theresomere, saultering. Saltarella come to her own. I pity your oldself I was used to. Now a younger’s there. Try not to part ! Be happy, dear ones ! May I be wrong! For she’ll be sweet for you as I was sweet when I came down out of me mother. My great blue bedroom, the air so quiet, scarce a cloud. In peace and silence. I could have stayed up there for always only. It’s something fails us. First we feel. Then we fall. And let her rain now if she likes. Gently or strongly as she likes. Anyway let her rain for my time is come. I done me best when I was let. Thinking always if I go all goes. A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me? One in a thousand of years of the nights? All me life I have been lived among them but now they are becoming lothed to me. And I am lothing their little warm tricks. And lothing their mean cosy turns. And all the greedy gushes out through their small souls. And all the lazy leaks down over their brash bodies. How small it’s all! And me letting on to meself always. And lilting on all the time. I thought you were all glittering with the noblest of carriage. You’re only a bumpkin. I thought you the great in all things, in guilt and in glory. You’re but a puny. Home ! My people were not their sort out beyond there so far as I can. For all the bold and bad and bleary they are blamed, the seahags. No! Nor for all our wild dances in all their wild din. I can seen meself among them, alla-niuvia pulchrabelled. How she was handsome, the wild Amazia, when she would seize to my other breast! And what is she weird, haughty Niluna, that she will snatch from my ownest hair! For ’tis they are the stormies. Ho hang! Hang ho! And the clash of our cries till we spring to be free. Auravoles, they says, never heed of your name! But I’m loothing them that’s here and all I lothe. Loonely in me loneness. For all their faults. I am passing out. O bitter ending! I’ll slip away before they’re up. They’ll never see. Nor know. Nor miss me. And it’s old and old it’s sad and old it’s sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms. I see them rising! Save me from those therrble prongs! Two more. Onetwo moremens more. So. Avelaval. My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I’ll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff! So soft this morning, ours. Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair! If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he’d come from Arkangels, I sink I’d die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. Yes, tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thous-endsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given ! A way a lone a last a loved a long the

What I especially enjoyed was an old Joycean trick taken to an extreme: that of quicksilver turns from one kind of discourse to another. The text ranges from declamation to story-telling to conversational rhythms, fragments of songs and hymns, so one feels supported in having a rough idea of where one was because the markers were in place vocally, even if one was actually in the position of seeing through a glass darkly.

AFRiverrun_Credit_Tony_Lewis_03

Olwen Fouéré. Photo by Tony Lewis.

Part of what made this performance so compelling was the physicality of this actor who played with her own androgynous appearance, sometimes sounding and looking like a Jackeen with a very loose tongue and a sharp critical intelligence, and then transforming into a very female river. Movement was minimal, because in some senses she was tethered to a microphone, but all the more powerful when it happened, as in the final sequence when she ‘unleaves’ (divests herself of her leafage/clothes) and dramatically dispenses with a jacket. At one stage, a watery moment, she performed a salmon leap (reminiscent of an archaic hero) and lifted a foot from ‘the river’ and for a moment that gave me a frisson of shock, the illusion of water was complete as (sand) drops fell from her bare foot.

Another feature of the performance was its cosmic soundscape. Derived from NASA recordings in deep space, it truly suggested the breadth and extent of Joyce’s scope. Anna Livia flows alongside every other river in the world in Joyce’s text, and Anna and Issy and HCE, Shem and Shawn are bumpkins, like all of us, and the cycles of history push up the same awful contretemps age by age. ‘First we feel. Then we fall’. And we chatter mindlessly and meaningfully in the hope of achieving real solidarity and community.

The performance, despite its formidable semantic challenges, held the attention of the audience in pin-drop territory. It was impossible not to admire the acuity of the adaptation, the absolute commitment to communicating and not talking down, the mental energy of the act of committing such manglings of language to memory, her fluid balletic movement, and the extent to which she tuned us in to Joyce-speak. She made it look easy, which it emphatically is not.

If you’re planning to see this show in Sydney where it goes next (why, oh why was Melbourne by-passed?), I do recommend reading the final section of the novel. It will be 50 pages of reading that will serve you well. Congratulations to the performer and her team.

Frances Devlin-Glass runs Bloomsday in Melbourne and has been a theatre critic since the early 1980s.