5 stars *****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
AS SHE moves onto the stage to begin her astounding solo preformance of riverrun, the great Irish actress Olwen Fouere looks a little like one of those ancient, timeless figures from Samuel Beckett’s late fragments of theatre; the mane of grey-white hair pulled back from the face, the clothes dark, the gender immaterial, or perhaps long gone. And it seems to me that it’s not an accidental resemblance; for in this mighty dramatisation of the last chapter of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which she adapted, co-directed and performs, Fouere is pushing towards the experimental limit of Joyce’s work, the point where his sentences soar and fragment into completely new invented languages of sound and meaning, and where his rushing poetic vision of inevitable dissolution takes him closest to the space, on the very brink of oblivion, where his successor Beckett pitches his finest drama.
So in riverrun, we hear and see Fouere perform the final sequence of Joyce’s 1939 novel, in which the River Liffey – Anna Livia, life itself – rushes down to dissolve itself into the sea; and for an astonishing 65 minutes, she holds the audience entralled, as she leads us through Joyce’s glimmering vision of the life of the city as it wakes to another day, of its aspirations and follies and political posturings, then deeper and deeper into the rushing water and into something like a female life-story, before a shimmering final moment of recognition, wonderment, and dissolution.
Riverrun features a quietly brilliant, pulsing soundscape by Alma Kelliher, and superb lighting by Steven Dodd. But its heart and soul is Fouere’s breathtaking performance, not only a verbal and vocal tour de force that leaves audiences gasping at the levels of skill and memory involved, but also a physical performance of unforgettable intensity, beauty and power. It’s a performance that takes that initial grey-haired figure, and almost magically allows it to shape-shift into fish and fools, gods and goddesses, preachers and politicians, frightened children, loving wives; and inyo a mighty, pulsing body of water, strong in itself, but composed of tiny, glittering fragments, all destined in the end to rush seaward, into something greater yet.