Features Guest Column Published 10 March 2014

Following the Flow of the Wake

Olwen Fouéré on Joyce, riverrun and embracing the danger.

Olwen Fouéré

What was it that led to the creation of riverrun?

I had never read Finnegans Wake in any linear fashion – instead I had dived into snippets by opening it at random – but I was a great fan of the Wake‘s mercurial form and had always carried, at the back of my mind, the possibility of giving voice to all that wild language in performance.  I had no real interest in a ‘story’ beyond the language, with its play of cultural and cosmic forces, and I was not a great reader of Joyce, but the Wake pulled me towards itself like a seam of dark matter, somewhere between energy and form, music and language.

So, one day, having been asked to read at a public event in honour of Joyce while I was on a world tour with another show, I chose to read the last page of Finnegans Wake, where Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), in her guise as the river ‘Life’, dissolves into the great ocean of time.

And that’s how it all began, with an audience, in a public space. Something happened during the reading, a moment where a few atoms changed shape and traversed the energy of the river approaching her death and transformation in the arms of the sea:

“… the moyles and moyles of it, maonanoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms. I see them rising! Save me from those therrble prongs!  Two more. Onetwo moremens more. So. Avelaval “¦ Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, Far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlee, mememormee! Till thousends thee. The keys to. Given “¦”

By the end of the reading, with the suspended last line “A way a lone a last a loved a long the “, my decision was made, inspired by the buzzing of atoms and a moment of flight.

There was no choice, really. Working backwards from the end of the book, a performance idea was taking shape. The river Liffey (Life) as all the rivers of the world, including our body’s bloodstream, a force of constant renewal, recycling the present, shedding the past, and moving us forwards towards the dawn.

It was simply a matter of following the river’s path, tracing it backwards towards a source that was pulling like a deep song from deep time; intuitively selecting journey points, skipping chunks of text, inserting a couple of short passages from earlier in the book, all gathering at the starting point marked Book IV, referred to by scholars as the Ricorso or Renewal or Dawn, at the beginning of the end of the book.

The performance of riverrun begins there, at the meridian of day and night, male and female, earth and space, island and sea. The first three words are Sanskrit, meaning the twilight of dawn:

“Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas!
Calling all downs. Calling all dawns to dayne.
Array! Surrection. Eireweeker to the wohld bludyn world.
O rally, O rally, O rally! Phlenxty, O rally!
To what lifelike thyne of the bird can be.
Seek you somany matters. Haze sea east to Osseania.
Here! Here! Tass, Patt, Staff, Woff, Havv, Bluvv and Rutter. The smog is lofting. Sonne feine, somme foehn avaunt! “¦”

riverrun by Olwen Fouere_publicity shot_credit Colm Hogan (2)

Finn Mac Cool and Foyn MacHooligan, cartoon-like heroes, music-hall gags, a giant body and its cosmic counterpart, the constellation of Orion, Ursa Major, the Egyptian book of the dead, various characters – celestial, human, animal, vegetal and mineral – hover. They emerge and morph on rhythms as subversive and agile as Charlie Chaplin.  In fact, I am sure he must be in there somewhere. As is, without a doubt, the voice of Lucia, Joyce’s  incarcerated daughter, with her silenced rage, her dancer’s brilliance and the multilingual fire of her wit. I am sure I can hear her, waking our silence, making us laugh.


“Rise up now and Aruse! Norvena’s over.”

Wake up, rise up.

It is an amazing journey to embark on, navigating an unstoppable stream of multiple languages and ideas, through an ever-changing universe, unbound by so-called reality, narrative or character, beyond any of the fixed ideas that can tyrannise the boundaries of our imagination.

The river leads the way, a sound-dance of revolutionary energy, and it is impossible to surf it like an expert. The performer in riverrun swims like a “cara weeseed”, a tiny cell in a cluster of cells, negotiating its way through the swirling world that made us.

It is an impossible task and a continuous process. There are so many questions.  A new friend, the French philosopher Sylvére Lotringer, reminds me that a question is a precious thing. It is. How to create and sustain a performance that can remain fluid, the form non-fixed, everything the theatre fundamentally aims for, but this time the question is a lot more complicated.

It is also wildly exhilarating. The Wake‘s river of words fills you with negative ions. Release the great energy of ALP!  Free Lucia!

Here is what Joyce once wrote to Arthur Power :

“The important thing is not what we write, but how we write, and in my opinion the writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously “¦ A book, in my opinion, should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself “¦”

He could have been speaking about performance. Embrace the danger.

There were several different versions along the way, and seven performed readings in Dublin, Paris, Lyon and Galway.

There were numerous conversations and collaborations with other artists during the development of riverrun including composers Mikel Rouse, Roger Doyle and Susan Stenger; directors Tom Creed, Annie Ryan and Sarah Jane Scaife; designers Monica Frawley, Paul Keogan and choreographer Megan Kennedy.

Independent producer Jen Coppinger joined the project in early 2012 and we gathered the final team together which includes the composer/sound designer Alma Kelliher, sound engineer Benny Lynch, lighting designer Stephen Dodd , co-director Kellie Hughes and production manager Rob Furey.

We author our own way down the river, along with our audience, on a different journey each and every night.

The world premiere of riverrun took place in July 2013, produced by TheEmergencyRoom in association with the Galway Arts Festival, followed by performances at the Kilkenny Arts Festival and Dublin Theatre Festival in October 2013.

It plays at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 24th August 2014.

Photos: Colm Hogan.




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