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  • Chris ORourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2018: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Karen McCartney, Amy Conroy, Aoibheann McCann, Paul Mescal and Martha Breen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Photo by Ste Murray


Love’s Labour Lost

If Katie Davenport’s simple set design for Arthur Riordan’s adaptation of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” suggests something immediate and accessible, guess again. Davenport’s two colour set, looking like a backdrop to a children's TV show, even allowing for a towering cardboard cutout of the Virgin Mary, does indeed suggest a childlike simplicity and directness. A position further supported by Davenport’s exaggerated cartoonish and childlike costumes. But childlike directness is as far removed from Riordan’s heavy-handed, lengthy ramblings as you can get, in an energetic production of a disappointingly laboured adaptation.

In Riordan’s reimagining Stephen Dedalus, once again, journeys from guilt filled, lustful Catholic to guilt free, lustful artist. Efforts to inject a contemporary feel fall short for the most part, with Riordan’s adaptation looking far more at home with the priest ridden and Parnell than with Prefab Sprout. This despite some clever subversion of gender with the role of Dedalus constantly shifting between cast members, both male and female alike. Efforts to inject a 1980s soundtrack, and to attire an ever shifting Dedalus in an Irish Italia 90 T-shirt, only reinforce the feeling of datedness, with both harking back to the last time a whiff of Catholic guilt held weak sway over a minority of Ireland’s youth.

Even so, Riordan’s adaptation doesn't so much explore the development of an artist so much as a young person wrestling with sex and Catholic shame. Like the huge cardboard cutout of the Virgin Mary dominating the stage, this takes up far too much space and could have been done a lot smarter. A situation not helped by ridiculing the ideas of shame and sin while trying to lend those same ideas some gravitas. Even when the artist finally does emerge, posturing on about the aesthetics of Aquinas and Aristotle, laboured debates only add even more unnecessary weight. Even the lacklustre ending takes forever to say what it wants to say.

If Riordan’s adaptation fails to adequately wrestle with Joyce’s masterpiece, director Ronan Phelan fails to wrestle Riordan’s script into something consistently engaging. This despite showing he has the unquestionable talent to do so. But playing it too safe, with characters endlessly standing or sitting around talking, showed too much respect for the text and not enough for its theatrical possibilities. Which, when Phelan shifted the emphasis from words to movement, allowing physicality in performances to really emerge, it proved all too irresistible. Groin grabbing, slow-dancing, singing, and sexual encounters, everything became immediate and alive, but, alas, all too short-lived. The shortcomings of which were never more obvious than following an endless, verbal tirade on shame and guilt after which a self hating, Amy Conroy conveys more in thirty physical seconds than anything said in the preceding ten talking minutes.

Despite being an obvious labour of love, at nearly three hours in length, including intermission, Riordan’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” not only feels long, but longwinded. An adaptation that likes the sound of its own voice too much, and Joyce’s, it often feels like a fractured monologue being delivered by rotating actors with some intermittent, lightweight, theatrical breaks. Or like a direct reading with intermittent, lightweight, theatrical breaks. It is to the immense credit of Martha Breen, Amy Conroy, Peter Corboy, Aoibhéann McCann, Karen McCartney, Paul Mescal, Conor O’Riordan and Kieran Roche that they fashion so many engaging moments and snippets of characters while suffering from too much, yet not enough, to work with. With less words and more action, Riordan’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” could have delivered something really special.

“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce, adapted by Arthur Riordan, produced by Rough Magic, runs as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2018 at The Pavilion Theatre until October 7

For more information, visit The Pavilion Theatre or Dublin Theatre Festival 2018

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