The trick is in the telling
That's the thing with James Joyce, there’s an awful lot of him about. With several hugely successful, and some not so successful Joyce related productions this past year, with more to come in 2017, you better have something really interesting if you're going to tackle Joyce and not risk your audience getting Joyced out. Thankfully The New Theatre's production “Dubliner’s Women” does indeed have something of interest to offer. And if its three tales from Joyce’s classic short story collection share an emphasis on the heartbreaking, the quality of their delivery, if somewhat inconsistent, is light, inventive and deeply engaging.
In “Dubliners Women” writer and performer Katie O'Kelly adapts Joyce’s “The Boarding House,” “Clay” and “Eveline” from his collection “Dubliners” to create her theatrical trilogy. Each tale features a central female protagonist whose lot is not as good as it might be. In “The Boarding House” a woman is waiting to see if a man will marry her, he having been deemed to have wronged her in the eyes of her mother. “Clay” sees a spinster from the Dublin by Lamplight laundry lamenting her loneliness. "Eveline” captures the moment a women watches her life and lover leave, she too paralyzed to follow.
If text for “Dubliners Women” sometimes feels less rich functioning as an onstage narrative, director Sarah Baxter has a few tricks up her sleeve to compensate. A talking heads situation is wonderfully side stepped, for the most part, in a highly theatrical production with the look and feel of a vaudeville show from the turn of the 19th century. Performers take to the stage with bags and boxes, black tiles and chalk. Silently they begin to dress, test the fiddle, try to get their trousers on and light candles before they begin. As stories unfold, something of an uneasy balance is struck between a highly physicalized, theatrical vocabulary, whose actions and gestures inform lines and scenes, and moments of physical stillness, where performers sit, or stand, allowing the text to do the work. In this regard, “Dubliners Women” is often a victim of its own success, for when its physicalisations are good, they are very, very good indeed. The rail of a ship, an abusive father, children playing at a party, all are simply yet brilliantly evoked. Yet such moments also highlight areas that don’t deliver as well in terms of inventiveness, or are a little too loose in delivery. They also serve as contrast with moments of sitting or standing still, some which work as a well balanced relief, others which can last a little too long in places, slowing pace down as a result.
Performers Madi O’Carroll, Gordon Quigley and Katie O’Kelly play multiple characters throughout, and do so with terrific conviction, using shifts in tone, expression or gesture to deftly craft their tale. Some moments are incredibly successful, with others looking a little rushed or less sharply executed. O’Kelly, around whom the stories primarily revolve, with O’Carroll and Quigley essentially serving as supporting cast, is particularly strong, especially in end scenes which coalesce around her. Here she brings each tale to a convincing close, never more so than with her perfectly pitched rendition of “I Dreamt I Dwelt In Marble Halls.” Throughout, “Dubliners Women” exudes a lively sense of playfulness immersed in an exceptional interplay of light and shadow, which Cathy O’Carroll’s twilight lighting design brings brilliantly to life.
There’s a theatrical intelligence at work in “Dubliners Women,” one that seeks to marry a lively, theatrical vocabulary with Joyce’s three tales. If its theatrical inventiveness is somewhat uneven, with moments of brilliance standing above others, its successes certainly win out in the end. Indeed, when all is said and done, “Dubliners Women” is a clever, lively and thoroughly enjoyable production.
“Dubliners Women” adapted by Katie O’Kelly from James Joyce’s "Dubliners" runs at The New Theatre until December 17th
For more information, visit The New Theatre