Reviews West End & Central Published 13 March 2014


National Theatre ⋄ 11th - 22nd March 2014

Peculiar swirling currents.

Stewart Pringle

riverrun flows through The Shed in a torrent. From the first moment where Olwen Fouréré unlaces her shoes and steps bare-feet unto the salt shore, leveed by the undulation of her microphone cable, to its final hanging preposition, riverrun streams ceaselessly. Fouréré has chosen one tributary of the great and swollen Finnegans Wake to trace, one track through its excess of half-words, double-words and un-words, and her performance is a flash-flood of arresting intensity. But like any flood, it’s destructive too, and there are times when you can’t help but feel beached, as if you’re watching an incomprehensible force of nature rush past you from the bank.

Fouréré’s verbal inventiveness and elasticity is remarkable, vibrating, babbling, howling and ricocheting through Joyce’s mutant language. There are moments of ritual solemnity, others of broad comedy, there are times in which characters float to the surface for a moment, and there is a sense in which the life of Anna Livia Plurabell (ALP), Joyce’s (very plural) river-woman, seems to encompass everything. Finnegan’s Wake is the wild storm after the programmatic Ulysses, and Fouréré allows its dreamy, echoey formlessness to undirect her adaptation.

When you’re swept away by riverrun it’s a euphoric experience, with Fouréré rushing too rapidly and too smoothly for the distraction of sense-making to gain purchase. However there are times in which this relentlessness becomes alienating, when it’s all too easy to switch off entirely and leave Fouréré’s verbal acrobatics as a background hum.

More problematic is the impact of the performance on the text. Similar to Barry McGoven’s performance of Samuel Beckett’s Watt, Fouréré cannot help but flatten ambiguities through her act of selection, direction and performance.

Poly-dimensional language is somehow ironed out through the semantic decoding of intonation and pacing. If you imagine each of the novel’s words as a cluster of musical notes, which Joyce recklessly allows to exist simultaneously, then in order to ‘play’ the text as Fouréré does she must choose which note she intends to perform. In quantum terms, Fouréré must collapse the waveform to shape out her performance, and while this allows for the text to be deciphered and received, it’s an occasionally unwelcome calming of stormy waters.

The speed of delivery also deadens much of the book’s mordant yet sing-song humour. Too often the laughs come as the result of Fouréré shining a phrase with a bit of a silly voice, and while that carries some weight as an interpretation of Joyce’s fixation with musty old music hall routines, it becomes repetitive. Nevertheless, the tune Fouréré is playing is consistently a beautiful one, an evocative slurring of Ireland dappled with orgiastic light as well as funereal shadows.

Fouréré’s performance is at its best when you can let the idea of its source vanish from your mind entirely, when you give yourself up to its peculiar swirling currents and cast yourself adrift alone along the

Olwen Fouréré on Joyce and embracing the danger.


Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

riverrun Show Info

Directed by Olwen Fouréré

Written by Olwen Fouréré, from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake




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