Written by Kevin LaTorre
“Do you know what Ireland is? asked Stephen with cold violence. Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”
Stephen Dedalus—protagonist of James Joyce’s coming-of-age novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—is blunt in his accusatory view of Ireland. Stephen often seems to act as Joyce’s fictional alter-ego, even if Joyce’s works are much more than stylized autobiography. Tellingly, Joyce littered Portrait, Ulysses, and his Dubliners short stories with veiled criticisms of his home. The structures of religious piety, nationalist politics, cultural identity, and familial responsibility struck Joyce as restrictive to his own voice, his artistic soul-in-the-making. So he escaped. But for all his complicated dissatisfaction with the city that reared him, Joyce could never quite escape, spiritually or artistically, the places where he grew up.
Just like Stephen at the novel’s ending, Joyce left Dublin to try la vie bohème in Paris, and he only returned to Dublin to care for his dying mother in 1903. After her death, Joyce eloped with the lovely Nora Barnacle in 1904 to live abroad. He visited Ireland intermittently for business purposes until 1912, when he conducted his final trip to the island. Despite Joyce remaining at a physical distance from his hometown, his writing always circled back to Dublin, to its streets, to its people.
Dublin, in return, also bears Joyce’s indelible mark. Davy Byrne’s boasts a Ulysses quote over its door near Grafton Street. To one side of O’Connell Street, Joyce leans on his cane as a jaunty statue, a monument locals grudgingly dub “the prick with the stick.” The James Joyce Centre offers Joycean tours from North Great George’s Street: the epicenter of the annual Bloomsday Festival (circa 1956) that occurs on June 16th, where Dublin commemorates Ulysses with tours of the novel’s settings and costumed reenactments of its scenes. Joyce lives on the streets of Dublin and as new generations continually interact with him, they will render new interpretations of his works. They will give him more reason to keep living in Dublin. Take the newest stage adaptation of Portrait that ran some weeks ago in Dùn Laoghaire by Rough Magic.
Rough Magic’s production of Portrait seems especially relevant for the city at this moment. One comment often attached to the show is how inventive it is, how bold its visual choices are within the ensemble cast. Online snapshots of the show spotlight Stephen as he stands highlighted as an individual against the uniform ensemble of the other actors. Rough Magic has staged the story to fit the present: an Irish soccer jersey differentiates Stephen Dedalus from everyone else, as both actors and actresses wear it throughout the performance. The show punctuates the progression from shamed Catholic schoolboy to shameless free-thinking artist with stylized movement under modern music, the songs featured resounding heavily, closer to spoken word than song.
Joyce’s themes and language remain, but today’s Dubliners have taken creative control that best adapts the work to their present, lending a timeliness to Joyce’s timelessness.
Sara Keating of The Irish Times mentions these “artfully chosen pop songs” in her review to illustrate why the adaptation is “fast-paced, fun and refreshingly unconventional.” The playwright, Arthur Riordan, described one morning: “The song Peter [Corboy] sings is anachronistic but strikes me as being perfect for this moment in the play…. in Ronan’s hands [the moment] has become a full production number.” He adds that the directorial choices are “surprising but also surprisingly apt.” “Surprisingly apt” captures many choices within the play, particularly Rough Magic’s use of pop music and soccer jerseys where Joyce, in the original, would use Catholic rituals—as symbols laden with meaning for the audience experiencing them. That jersey might mean more to a theatregoer than the Latin of Stephen Dedalus’s school days; “She” by Elvis Costello likely carries more weight today than the call-and-response of Mass. Joyce’s themes and language remain, but today’s Dubliners have taken creative control that best adapts the work to their present, lending a timeliness to Joyce’s timelessness.
For this, Rough Magic’s production stands out from the crowd of many Joyce adaptations. 1977 saw a film adaptation of Portrait, while the novel hit the stage first in 1962 and then again in 2012. Joseph Strick took it upon himself to attempt a film version of Ulysses in 1967. But Arthur Riordan’s adaptation, under the direction of Ronan Phelan, is not an adaptation borne out of the 1960s, or even out of 2012. Gay marriage passed its referendum in 2015; abortion did the same back in August. Dublin gave Pope Francis a chilly reception a few weeks later. You could say that the island’s is undergoing a fundamental transformation. This revised backdrop generated the need for a new kind of Portrait. About Rough Magic’s production, Keating writes that the adaptation “is as relevant to conceptions of Irishness now as it was then.”
Irishness is still evolving further, to be sure. The island faced another referendum on October 26th, this time to to delete the word “blasphemy” from a constitutional amendment. Voting “Yes” would decriminalize the mockery of religion, and the Irish voted decisively to remove that provision. Seeing as politicians first wrote the constitution with the pervasive help of the Catholic church, removing this part of the amendment is a significant step towards reducing the Church’s influence. Nearly two weeks before the vote, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man left the Pavilion Theatre to begin touring the country’s other stages.
The show’s posters, now spreading across the country, illustrate the play’s spirit succinctly: a pair of hands hold the portrait of the contemplative, wide-eyed Joyce over an unseen face. All ten fingernails are painted, mismatched green, red, and orange. It could be anyone behind the poster, ready to speak with the voice of the writer. Dubliners spoke first, and now it’s on to Waterford, Cork, and Galway. Such is the power of James Joyce today—the young and daring can still speak through his words, reimagining them for the landscape of 2018.