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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2022: Joyce's Women/The Blackwater Lightship

Joyce's Women by Edna O'Brien. Image: Ros Kavanagh.

Themes can emerge over the course of a festival when a variety of works deal with the same subject. In Dublin Fringe Festival the experience of black people in Ireland was very much a recurring theme. It might be premature to call it, but Dublin Theatre Festival already has two productions sharing a startling number of similarities. Both are stories by internationally renowned Irish novelists, both concern a mother's relationship with their favoured son and difficult daughter, and revolve around a child dealing with a critical illness. With both superbly directed, featuring casts to die for, and displaying impeccable production values.

Stephen Hogan in Joyce's Women by Edna O'Brien. Image: Ros Kavanagh.

In Joyce's Women **** Edna O'Brien tells the story of James Joyce in a manner likely to offend both purist and revisionist. Which is what makes O'Brien's so delightfully pernicious. Thank God she's still writing. A slow, steady burner, Joyce's Women portrays Joyce (Stephen Hogan) as a squinting Mammy's Boy with a peeving stare. A sexual repressed, wannabe dandy, obsessed with death and having industrial strength mother issues. Indeed, if ever there was a classic serial killer profile, Joyce was it. The arrival of Nora Barnacle (Bríd Ní Nechtain), a woman whose insecurities fuel her later coldness, revealing more in reaction than action, would have had Freud shaking his Oedipal head watching Joyce fall in and out of lust with his muse, his kindred spirit, his soul mate. Until the arrival of his daughter Lucia, a gifted dancer suffering schizophrenia, who, if she looks more to be pitied than punished, you’d still hide any sharp knives if she turned up unexpectedly for dinner. Yet what happens to Mammy when Daddy's Girl replaces her as his muse, his soul mate, his kindred spirit? How do you live with a man who women like Joyce's patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver (Ali White), seem to adore and want to take care of?

Genevieve Hulme Beaman in Joyce's Women by Edna O'Brien. Image: Ros Kavanagh.

Initially, Joyce's Women can feel less a biography so much as a trial. With witnesses for the prosecution including Joyce's Mother (Deirdre Donnelly) and a host of prostitutes marvellously rendered by Neil O'Driscoll's AV Design. Indeed lights, (Ben Ormerod), costume (Joan O'Clery), sound (Ivan Birthistle) are top class, with Sabine Dargent's angled, mirror set proving magnificent, allowing facial expressions to be always visible. Vital given two superb choices by director Conall Morrison, who does a striking job throughout. The first, the inclusion of a short video sequence, featuring a stunning cameo by Venetia Bowe, in which Genevieve Hulme Beaman is luminescent as Lucia. This is a movie you’d pay to see, Hulme Beaman being the second superb choice by Morrison, even as the movie raises questions about the limits of theatre. A sprite, an open wound, endlessly longing, Hulme Beaman is simply sensational in one of the standout performances of the festival. If the Wagnerian operatic scene overplays its hand near the end, by then the war is won even if the occasional battle gets lost. If for no other reason than Hulme Beaman's performance, Joyce’s Women is stirring stuff. But this is Edna O'Brien. There are lots of reasons to be moved and stirred.

The Blackwater Lightship. Image by Patrick Redmond

As there are in director David Horan's excellent adaptation of Colm Toibin's 1999 novel, The Blackwater Lightship ****. As if Modern Family met It's A Sin met The Big Chill, a young man, Declan (David Rawle), dying from AIDS, returns unannounced to his grandmother’s home. A move which sees him coming out about this sexuality and his illness to his family. With Declan being the least developed character, almost a device, a projection of everyone else's opinions, it can be a little hard to care for him initially. It's how others care so deeply for him that gives him life. The assistance of two trope-y gay friends (wonderful, caring people who have life figured out, whose primary function is to put the straight people…eh…straight) see an infectiously delightful Larry (Donnacha O’Dea) and a firm but fair Paul (Will O’Connell), giving the cipher Declan some substance and the production its joyous, life affirming core.

Ruth McCabe in The Blackwater Lightship. Image: Ros Kavanagh.

Leaving three generations of women to give it a tragic, darker side in painful need of redemption. A wonderful Ruth McCabe as grandmother Dora, as old as folklore and as youthful as a learner driver, speaks her wickedly candid mind. As do daughter Lily and granddaughter Helen, a superb Karen Ardiff and Rachel O'Byrne respectively, whose mother and daughter scene, where they flay each other alive, is powerfully poignant. Maree Kearns’s set and costumes, Kevin Smith's lighting and Tom Lane's evocative score capturing the light in dark places on a road to hope. For even when death looms, there's still time to make things right.

If Joyce's Women and The Blackwater Lightship approach similar themes in not totally dissimilar fashions, they are two very different creatures. You could choose the one more to your liking. Or you could choose both and really treat yourself. It's Festival time. Why not?

Joyce's Women by Edna O'Brien, in a co-production between The Abbey Theatre and Eilene Davidson Productions, runs as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2022 at The Abbey Theatre till October 15.

The Blackwater Lightship, adapted and directed by David Horan, presented by Verdant Productions, runs as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2022 at The Gaiety Theatre till October 2.

For more information visit Dublin Theatre Festival 2022


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