Joyce’s Women Review – Edna O’Brien’s powerful play is a fascinating portrait of a fellow writer

Joyce’s Women Review – Edna O’Brien’s powerful play is a fascinating portrait of a fellow writer

On the occasion of the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the artist’s scenic portrait of Edna O’Brien is created through the eyes of the women around him. Commissioned by the Abbey Theater and co-produced with Eilene Davidson Productions, this new ensemble show reflects 91-year-old O’Brien’s admiration for Joyce’s work.

Through the characters of her mother, May (Deirdre Donnelly); wife, Nora Barnacle (Bríd Ní Neachtain); daughter Lucia (Genevieve Hulme Beaman); the lover Martha Fleischmann (Caitríona Ní Mhurchú); and patron Harriet Shaw Weaver (Ali White), recall episodes of their life in exile in Trieste, Paris and Zurich. In flashbacks and reveries, Joyce’s words – taken from her short stories, novels, poems and letters – run through each scene; inextricable life and work.

While Nora awaits news from the Zurich hospital where Joyce is seriously ill in 1941, she tells her story to Brigitte (Hilda Fay). Happier days fill her thoughts: her courtship with Joyce (Stephen Hogan) in Dublin. “Your soul seems to me the most beautiful and melancholy soul in the world,” she tells her, convincing her to leave Ireland with him.

While Nora’s resistance through years of misery has been extensively documented, the focus here is on her sour relationship with her daughter, Lucia, and on the jealousy of Lucia’s closeness to Joyce. Through their creativity and imagination, father and daughter have a bond, with Joyce taking the passionate, then mentally ill, Lucia as inspiration for Anna Livia in Finnegans Wake. Hulme Beaman portrays Lucia’s expressiveness as a dancer, as well as her violent anger, with irresistible vulnerability. One of the most moving scenes is when the ever-generous Weaver visits the dying Joyce and tells her how much he wishes to see Lucia.

At its best, Conall Morrison’s lavish production conveys O’Brien’s deeply empathic identification with Joyce, though some less delicate staging gimmicks detract from it. A Dublin chorus of voices – accompanied by looming projected images – commenting on Joyce’s status as a national literary figure seems heavy, while even the frequent sung interludes of traditional ballads are overdone. What persists is the sense of fascinating dialogue and interaction between one extraordinary writer and another.

• At the Abbey Theater, Dublin, until 15 October as part of the Dublin Theater Festival.

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