March 16, 2014 10:01 pm

riverrun, National Theatre (Shed), London – review

Olwen Fouéré embodies the River Liffey in this hypnotic interpretation of Joyce’s formidable text
Olwen Fouéré in 'riverrun'©Colm Hogan

Olwen Fouéré in 'riverrun'

Those yet to make it past the 100-letter word in Finnegans Wake’s third paragraph – it marks a rumble of thunder and puns in 12 different languages – can take consolation from the fact that even Olwen Fouéré, its onstage interpreter, hasn’t read the whole thing. James Joyce’s text is a tangle of polyglot puns and portmanteaus whose complexities have prompted vast amounts of exegesis, including a 500-page glossary.

Happily, riverrun stands alone. Fouéré, whose silkworm-thread hair instils a Middle-Earth androgyny, plays the river that speaks at the end of the book, the River Liffey. She’s not in character per se, but she does more than give voice to it. She embodies it.

Fouéré stands barefoot on a stage dusted with salt. Her microphone chord winds across it like a river on a map, bending into a mic-stand that curlicues up and around itself in a metal twist.

Fouéré somehow contains a similar motion. She shapeshifts and, in doing so, recalls that old Heraclitus line about never stepping into the same river twice. At times, she’s like a tour guide, droning through notable riverside features. Elsewhere, she becomes a nasal flight controller – “calling all daynes to dawn” – or else a Robin Williams-style stand-up, spouting a babble of half-sense: “a wirble of a warble is a world.”

Naturally, your head starts to spin and, as with Beckett, you simply ride the show’s flow, entranced. Fouéré achieves escape velocity with remarkable ease – partly because Joyce slips into goobledygook, where Beckett’s linguistics can snag, partly because she deploys actual hypnosis techniques.

Alma Kelliher’s sound-design hums like a distant engine room, Stephen Dodd’s lighting ebbs and flows. Fouéré exhales into the microphone and the breathy bass-notes, like lapping waves or gusts of wind, pull you downwards. Her undulating physicality works similarly. She’s like every kind of animal tamer: horse-whisperer; snake-charmer; even, as she whips her linen jacket overhead, bullfighter.

In that semi-conscious state, rhythm and tone carry meaning and the river reveals itself. Here, Fouéré seems to eddy; there, to race like rapids. Sometimes she jostles like a riffle or throws her head back and roars like a waterfall. A leaf floats alongside. She looks up and sees gulls and that, you suddenly click, means the sea, which, you click again, means an ending – a sort of death. Was the river’s course a life lived? Only now, as it nears its end, are you aware that you hardly registered its passing.


nationaltheatre.org.uk

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