Nearly five years after the release of James Joyce’s works from copyright, are we any the wiser? The short story collection Dubliners alone has been staged in a collection of different ways, from The Corn Exchange’s near-vaudevillian adaptation to The Performance Corporation’s opera version of its most iconic story, The Dead. It’s hard to find a consensus on how to perform the material.
It’s easier to identify a Dickensian appeal. At the beginning of Katie O’Kelly’s sprightly new adaptation of three Dubliners episodes for The New Theatre, players arrive in Edwardian union suits and nightdresses, lighting candles with wide-eyed wonder. These figures could be out of A Christmas Carol, where, similarly, sympathetic portrayals of poverty and wickedly drawn characters feel appropriate to the season.
O’Kelly’s engagement with Joyce, however, goes beyond reassuring festive comedy. She rightly suspects that the power of Dubliners lies in how it brings the limits of what we can see into focus. When published in 1914, The Boarding House, Clay and Eveline (The Dead, now adapted three times in as many years, is wisely left out) could only offer glimpses of what was to come for women in the twentieth century.
From the perspective of the present day, audiences look on a benevolent depiction of a Magdalene Laundry feeling the crushing weight of Irish history. Women are constantly denied their desires in these stories, yet director Sarah Baxter’s staging is affectionate nonetheless; lovers may stand at opposite ends of the stage but share a warm glow under Cathy O’Carroll’s thoughtful lighting.
That acknowledgement of what cannot be seen is a poignant approach to staging Joyce. Less may be more, though O’Kelly’s plays have often imagined whole worlds dripping with detail (her comedy Counter Culture conjured an entire shop-floor of workers in a department store dispute). Dubliners Women provides the opportunity for her to demonstrate if she create both types of production equally effectively.
The deft cast (O’Kelly, Madi O’Carroll and Gordon Quigley) are caught somewhere between the narrators and characters of the stories. After offloading countless cases containing props – hats, chalkboards, books, a rope – they seem to morph into a new individual every millisecond. The constant reshuffling makes for the kind of production where the demonstration, not the play, is the thing.
Worse, it risks losing its teeth! When the shy laundry worker takes part in a Halloween tradition, wearing a blindfold and reaching for an unfortunate saucer of clay, she is caught by an immense beam of light, signalling, perhaps, the shapelessness of her own life. When she tries again and lands on a prayer book, it’s judged as a joke, instead of acknowledging a fateful entry to a convent as a sad escape from the world.
Regardless, the audience hummed agreeably as we journeyed through the same city but 102 years in the past. Not everything’s changed: Dubliners still rings true to those it’s named after.
Dubliners Women is on until 17th December 2016 at The New Theatre in Dublin. Click here for more details.