[2015099] Riverrun

[2015099] Riverrun

Olwen Fouéré @ Dunstan Playhouse

2:00pm, Mon 2 Mar 2015

It may surprise some people (and I really do mean “some”) that, despite all this art stuff I see, I’m actually pretty culturally illiterate. To wit: I don’t have any formal knowledge of anything to do with James Joyce. So it wasn’t (the source of) the content of Riverrun that drew me to this performance… rather, it was David Sefton’s delight at describing the content that convinced me that this would be worth a punt.

And Sefton’s enthusiasm is warranted, if only because of the weirdness of the synopsis: Olwen Fouéré writes, directs, and performs a monologue “in the voice of the river in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake“. Now, with no knowledge of the book, that sounds like a compellingly odd idea; having read a little after-the-fact about the “challenging” nature of Finnegans Wake, and the fact that the book apparently contains references to many rivers from around the world, it now seems completely nuts.

Fouéré is a striking presence as we enter the Playhouse, waiting in the inky dark in a black suit, her white shirt almost as much of a beacon as her white hair. And with the house seated, the lights drop; she very deliberately takes off her shoes, and launches into her Riverrun.

And I think I speak for at least half the audience when I say that I could not understand a word she said.

For at least the first few minutes of Fouéré’s delivery, her thick accent makes it almost impossible to discern words: once my ears adjust, I start being able to pull words and fragments of sentences out of the torrent being presented. Towards the end of the performance, I recall discerning an entire sentence, and feeling very pleased with myself.

But the physicality of Fouéré’s performance is undeniably beautiful. She roams the stage with an almost balletic elegance, and she can twist the mood in the room by standing minutely taller and changing her expression, puffing out her chest. It’s so well weighted, so well performed, that I want to laud Riverrun

…but it’s really, really difficult to do that when you can’t engage with the text. Which, in turn, makes me contemplate whether I’d feel differently had this been presented in a completely different language.

It’s not just me who remained disengaged: a chap behind me nodded off to sleep, and I heard the gentle thudding and nestling of his slumber. And there was obviously a contingent who couldn’t wait for the performance to be over: after Fouéré removed her jacket and walked backwards, swiping the jacket across the floor, people started applauding… only to hush when she returned to stage centre for a spotlight on her face to shrink to nothing, catching her cracking a broad smile as it did so.

So: I had no idea what Riverrun was about, but I enjoyed watching it happen. Maybe some knowledge of Joyce would have helped comprehension; immersion in Irish accents would certainly have made the text more audibly legible. But maybe that would have taken away the mystery, too, and detracted from the joy I found in the physical performance.

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