James Joyce’s Dublin ought to be familiar by now. Most of his major works, released from copyright nearly six years ago, have been seen on stage. But how easy is it really to adapt a collection of short stories like Dubliners, where conversation and song come only in snatches? Absence, loneliness, insignificance – these all seem tricky to perform.
Andrew Synnott and Arthur Riordan’s beguiling new opera, adapting two of Joyce’s stories, finds revelatory ways to fill the silence. Neatly directed by Annabelle Comyn for Opera Theatre Company and Wexford Festival Opera, this is Dubliners as we’ve never seen it before. What could have been a reassuring Victorian scene is instead an icily detached office in Paul O’Mahony’s set design, its floor and walls covered in white tiles, with shelves of alcohol peering in. It’s a meeting point for isolation and dependency.
At the centre of the story Counterparts is Farrington (Cormac Lawlor), a cleric hounded by his boss. Nervy rhythms shuffle as he risks being exposed for his lack of productivity. Impressively expansive, Synnott’s music for piano and strings is agitated one moment, swelling romantically the next, as a client (Emma Nash) sincerely thanks the office for its service. The production pivots poignantly between cruelty and kindness.
There is darkness in this tale of a man jeopardising his job for a drink. Lawlor’s despairing voice traces the contours of emasculated pride; a pathetic apology in work becomes a hero’s folktale in the pub, for instance. But losing a contest with an acrobat (the wonderfully flamboyant Anna Jeffers) cuts him deep, and he infuriatingly lashes out as a result.
Joyce well understood our cages. In The Boarding House, a woman (Jeffers) providing lodging for music hall artists observes that her daughter Polly (Nash) has begun an affair with a guest. She clamps down on making a wedded match between them. “It’s all well for the man,” she warns, to a satisfying and industrious clatter of piano. Bob (a nicely judged Andrew Gavin) also gets to say his part, as a young man intimidated into joining the family.
Riordan’s libretto finds rich resonance in repetition of the story’s prose. As Nash’s soprano emotionally gales, saying nothing new, the production insistently finds a departure from its source: a cynical vision of her as a future bride. That’s an experiment deserved of Joyce. Dubliners is finally starting to sing.
Dubliners is at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin, until November 11th. For more details, click here.