Gabriel Conroy, the insecure professor of James Joyce’s 1914 short story, drifts through his aunts’ Christmas party to music: Yes? Let Me Like a Soldier Fall by William Vincent Wallace is rumoured to be sang in high C by a near-mythological tenor; Vincenzo Bellini’s Arrayed for the Bridal is given a hesitant rendition by a party guest; and, famously, there’s a stirring performance of The Lass of Aughrim. Given Joyce’s set-list, importing The Deadinto opera seems a logical move.
With music by Ellen Cranitch and a libretto by Tom Swift, this Performance Corporation and Breda Cashe co-production wisely tries to move the material into new territory. Since the expiration of copyright in 2012, ventures such as Frank McGuinness’s Dickensian adaptation for the Abbey Theatre and Annie Ryan’s intimate staging for The Corn Exchange might already have audiences on the verge of Joycean fatigue.
Paper snowflakes hang prettily over a set dressed in Edwardian black and white by designer Niamh Lunny, a stage neatly blanketed by Kevin McFadden’s attractive lighting. A raised table dominates the stage, around which a string quartet performs Cranitch’s polite score while also helping to populate a sense of a party, with a cast of four swapping characters with great vigour.
This is where director Jo Mangan focuses most of her energy, in mining the social gathering for melodrama. Clare Barrett comically stumbles as the alcoholic Freddy Malins, and the ‘West Brit’-slandering Molly Ivors is played by Ruth McGill and her familiar gallery of chewed expressions. Against these histrionics, Rory Musgrave’s Gabriel, alarmingly, fades to the background.
You’d suspect a subtler stage would have us looking into Swift’s microscopic lyrics, which dedicate entire bars of song to minute events – the removal of guests’ coats; journeys to the pantry – as if possible points of connection at a party where individuals seem eternally divided. You’d also question Mangan’s operatic sensibilities, with struggling to position Musgrave centre, or to render Lisa Lambe’s (playing Gabriel’s wife Gretta) higher notes more audible.
Disappointingly, there is no chill, no sense of drifting through an anaesthetised Dublin shackled by orthodoxies at the turn of the twentieth century. No one’s haunted by the reminders of death, and there’s no irony of them manifesting on the Epiphany of Christ’s birth, the Christian holiday during which the story is set. Nor is there playing up of Gabriel’s aunts in their mythological allusion as the Graces of Greek legend.
Judging from the Joyce-rush over the last few years, to crystalize his prose onstage seems to banish the tantalising truth of its literary form: to lead us to what is unsaid. Perhaps linearity and action should be subordinate to a mysterious, unfinished subtext, as in Olwen Fouéré’s maddening adaptation of Finnegan’s Wake: riverrun.
Mangan is a powerhouse producer, and as evidenced by her impressive work with the Bram Stoker Festival, she’s skilled in parcelling cultural industries and redistributing them with new vitality. Her directorial touch here leaves less of an impression. While an actor begins to sing The Lass of Aughrim, an often-beloved highlight in Joyce’s story, another performer is to clear a dinner table of naff set pieces, distracting us from the song. It’s an unfortunate piece of stage business that makes you think The Dead would be better off left on ice.