Theatre Review: Olwen Fouéré, riverrun, (Book 4 of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake), Centre Culturel Irelandais, Paris, February 8-9
Performance Sketches by Camilo Osorio Suarez.
Many’s the more than million readers who bravely started on the journey “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us…” and perhaps made it as far as the terrible, multilingual thunder bolt announcing the Fall of Man:
…before folding their tents and heading home. More’s the pity because Finnegan’s Wake is first and foremost a tipsy, cock-eyed, hallucinatory, verbal performance, full of trap doors and staged scenes. (No chance, really, that such a text could be published in enlightened times.) How to penetrate the difficulties of Joyce’s shambolic virtuosity?
Well, the copyrights on his work run out this year – lucky 13 for us – so we can now presumably take Finnegan’s down to the corner and bellow it out with no fear of a legal dunning. (Fierce estates and copyright malingerers will just have to be content with a Joyce they can’t control. One wonders who exactly they were protecting.)
Irish actress Olwen Fouéré is travelling around with Book 4 under her arm and in riverrun – not a reading because it is wildly, physically more, and not strictly a performance if the word is understood as improvised action sans texte – she encarnates Anna Livia Plurabelle the river spirit at dawn, as well as a passel of Joyce’s commentators who slip in and out like real characters through those stage doors. White hair tumbling down the shoulders of a black tux – in the darkness before the lights came up her face became an ancient, glowering mask – barefoot, she was like a shore bird swooping across the stage. It’s a work in progress, and there are many more risks to be taken, such as getting the performer out from behind the microphone and dais so she can really move. Joyce corporeal.
Such is the crisis provoked by a writer who married a working woman and sang bawdy when he felt like it. He was a bit of bruiser who saw fit to put Yeats in his place. Overly intellectual, too schematic? Many academics prefer the God-like figure off in the distance paring his nails and some are content to underline the symbols. Finnegan’s is Joyce at his most Rabelasian, a wandering minstrel, priestly pretensions intact, with his own take on the Tale of the Tribe.
In fact, Finnegan’s is difficult not because it is symbolic but because it is polysemous, a fancy word that might be translated as “casting a wide verbal net.” All sorts of words mingle, conjugate, make new meanings by being thrown together in new congregations – like the lightning overhead, found in no dictionary.
One doesn’t really dissect or comprehend a performance like this, one listens as “Pu Nuseht, lord of risings in the yonderworld of Ntamplin, tohp triumphant, speaketh.” Demand full understanding or your money back, instant answers to all your questions? Better stay home. Lean in, like we all (Joyce assuredly) used to do to the radio. What’s she saying? What’s it to ya? Think about it awhile, mull it over. Plenty of time to be a scholar – later, later. Phrases like Rollin’s tun he gadden no must prick your ear as they fly by. Want to be further confused? The whole text is on the internet – if you must. I want Fouéré to read me the whole bleeding epic. Imagine turning your radio on and hearing that. Fouéré was, as they say, etonnante, something she already proved in Goudé’s Sodom, My Love, although that word seems a little pale in reference to her performance. I didn’t know what to expect when I slipped in to my seat in the front row at the last minute. A Proper Reading of a Notoriously Difficult Text? Fouéré was fierce and sky-rowing. You’d have to be a budding Wakeist to describe it adequately.
The Centre Culturel Irelandais in Paris is to be commended for sticking their necks into the thicket of Who Owns Joyce. It’s hard in these days of the Easily Accessible Everything to argue on behalf of a text that refuses to give up all its treasures on the first or fortieth go, but there she was, Owen Fouéré, risking it, spreading her wings and breathing those long strange words pinned to the page like butterflies into a living, nervy jangle. I hope the Uptight Copyright Creeps don’t badger her into submission. We all know what a High Lather the Beckett estate works itself into over “unauthorized” performances. They have Stage Fright.
Last words I leave to Joyce’s longest listener – who never read him – from a letter to a friend while J was “hard at work” (a ludicrous formulation in this case) on Finnegan’s. Nora wrote,
“I go to bed and then that man sits in the next room and continues laughing about his own writing. And then I knock at the door, and I say, now Jim, stop writing or stop laughing.”
Be glad he didn’t and with luck, Olwen Fouéré won’t.
Iddhis Bing lives and writes in Paris. Covers music for La Folia, politics for GroundReport. His fiction, The Apartment Thief (novel) and NeoYorkinos (stories) is en route to the printer as we speak.