James Joyce’s work wouldn’t look like the most likely candidate for a theatrical reduction; and yet, Irish theatre makers have engaged a lot with the writer recently.
Rough Magic opened their new production of “A portrait of the artist as a young man”, directed by Ronan Phelan and adapted by Arthur Riordan, at the Pavilion Theatre on September 28 to a full auditorium. Instead of an early 1900’ setting, we are thrown in the middle of a scant, abstract contemporary staging, with the cast ensemble wearing jeans (enigmatically too short, by costume and set designer Katie Davenport). A giant, faceless shape of the Virgin Mary overlooks the drama of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, searching for his identity amidst religious oppression, sexual desires and a rising artistic sensibility.
Stephen is played in turn by multiple actors and a metatheatrical device (the swapping of his Ireland jersey) has the different on-stage narrators constantly changed into him, a sort of visual match for the free indirect speech often used in the novel. An overall playfulness dominates the production, which is animated by an apparent desire of making this piece of high literature popular and accessible: the pop songs, the sing-along church choruses, the Irish mammy constantly pregnant and so on.
Gender fluidity has almost become commonplace in Irish theatre, betraying some sort of anxiety about political correctness. We see Stephen played by both male and female actors. Society, Irish and not, is in desperate need of gender equality; but is theatre – or art – the place where to fight this battle? Yes, it is a universal humanity we are seeking to discover through art, something that transcends gender; but there is also an essential, archetypal polarity in the representation of a man as distinct from a woman.
While all the cast were very good, standout performances were those of Amy Conroy (especially as Dante at the Christmas dinner) and Peter Corboy as Stephen Dedalus.
Overall, Riordan’s and Phelan’s adaptation makes for an effective distillate of the original and offers some powerful moments that somehow manage to add to it, while making Joyce step down from his pedestal.
“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” runs at The Pavilion Theatre until October 7, then tours around Ireland until November 3. Full details on https://www.roughmagic.ie/archive/a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man/.