Undoubtedly, this dramatisation of Dubliners will test the patience of many a Joyce purist. There are times during the performance when one can imagine the stern disapproval of Stephen Joyce who, until the lapse of copyright in January of this year, acted as custodian of his grandfather’s published work. By the end of the evening, however, one feels that this may not be such a bad thing. Adapted for the stage by Michael West and presented by The Corn Exchange, one of Ireland’s most celebrated theatre companies, Dubliners takes delight in blending Joyce with elements of vaudeville and commedia dell’arte to energetically retrieve these stories from the literary canon.
The selected stories observe the thematic structure of Joyce’s book in cohering with the phases of childhood, adolescence, adulthood and public life. It is in its handling of boyhood that the production is least successful. The incursion of a Stephen Dedalus figure in “The Sisters” and “An Encounter” tends to enervate much of the dramatic tension of these stories. There is little surprised, for example, to learn at the conclusion of “An Encounter” that the narrator “always despised” his companion, whereas in Joyce’s story this has the force of revelation. This faltering note is soon swept away by a vaudevillian reworking of the stories which emphasizes elements of the picaresque, and even burlesque, in much of the original book.
The commedia dell’arte characterizations in “Counterparts” and “A Mother” where pleasingly riotous and equally it was the exaggerated humour in the former which made the concluding moments of the piece so shocking. Many of the joys of the evening arose from the inevitable moments of intimate recognition that occur when Dubliners encounter Joyce’s work: the guffaw that went up when Corley in “Two Gallants” boasts that he ‘used to go with girls off the South Circular Road’ or the beautifully judged tribute to the evening’s venue when Frank takes Eveline to the Gaiety Theatre. In this regard too the music, composed by Conor Linehan, hit the right nostalgic notes in bringing to life a Dublin that is long gone. Strong use was made of the video screen behind the actors not only to indicate the locations of stories but also to intimate thematic preoccupations; an interesting decision was the use of a pink backdrop during “Two Gallants” to suggest a homoerotic dimension to Corley and Lenehan’s relationship.
Perhaps the most anticipated piece of the evening was “The Dead” which picked up the story with a haunting rendition by Ruth McGill, playing Gretta, of The Lass of Aughrim, the song which triggers Gabriel’s epiphany. However, the famous closing lines (“snow is general all over Ireland … faintly falling … upon all the living and the dead”) were delivered in a curiously bombastic fashion, not sitting at all with the tone and atmosphere of the story. The final moments of the production fondly nod to Joyce’s most famous work, and one hopes to a future Corn Exchange project, when Gabriel lies head to foot beside his sleeping wife, the pair thus becoming Molly and Bloom.
Inevitably, as with most adaptations, there are things one can pick at and there are times where one feels an opportunity has been lost to fulfil for a contemporary audience Joyce’s ambition to provide his compatriots with “one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.” However, the Corn Exchange version of these famous stories shows us that Joyce can, in different ways, belong to all of us and perhaps, still, most especially to Dubliners.