Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Seeing Riverrun again

I loved Olwen Fouéré' s Riverrun in Dublin last year, and went to see it again on Saturday, at the Shed on the South Bank, by the mighty River Thames, another great river setting.   

Father Thames on a lamp post in front of the theatre

Entering the South Bank, it was nice to see this blackboard, asking audience members to share the most meaningful word of the show.

In Dublin, Olwen had a deep wide stage, and performed to the audience face on. In the Shed, she has a smaller but higher space. The audience sits on either side and in front of her, and we got less of Stephen Dodd's lighting design.

When I saw the piece in Dublin, I thought it was a straight adaptation of the final chapter. In London, I realised she's included passages from other parts of the Wake. I recognised the last bit of the Shem the Penman chapter, pages 193-5 (which I had to read aloud in Sweny the Chemist's last year). At the end, Shaun 'points the deathbone and the quick are still' but Shem the artist 'lifts the lifewand and the dumb speak.
— Quoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiq!'

It's echoed in the final chapter, on page 595: 'Death banes and the quick quoke. But life wends and the dombs spake.' 

In Riverrun, Olwen gave us a good 'Quoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiq!'

Photo by Colm Hogan. Here she's whispering some of the text from St Patrick and the Druid, p611


I spotted another passage from page 26, in the book's opening chapter:

Your heart is in the system of the Shewolf and your crested head is in the tropic of Copricapron. Your feet are in the cloister of Virgo. Your olala is in the region of sahuls. And that’s ashore as you were born. Your shuck tick’s swell. And that there texas is tow linen. The loamsome roam to Laffayette is ended. Drop in your tracks, babe! Be not unrested ! The headboddylwatcher of the chempel of Isid, Totumcalmum, saith: I know thee, metherjar, I know thee, salvation boat.

This comes from the bit where the fallen hodcarrier Tim Finnegan, who is also the giant Finn MacCool, is trying to rise up out of his coffin at his wake, and the mourners are telling him to stay dead ('Now be aisy Mr Finnimore sir. And take your laysure like a god on pension and don't be walking abroad.' 24.16).  In the passage quoted above, they're using Ancient Egyptian spells for the same purpose.  

A hymn addressed to Ptah Tanen declares that his head is in the heavens while his feet are on the earth or in Duat, the underworld. "The wind", declared the priestly poet, "issues from thy nostrils and the waters from thy mouth. Upon thy back grows the grain. The sun and the moon are thine eyes. When thou dost sleep it is dark, and when thou dost open thine eyes it is bright again."

Donald Mackenzie, Egyptian Myth and Legend, 1907 

The last Wake sentence above is based on a hymn to Osiris in the Book of the Dead ('Osiris Ra, triumphant, saith...'). A 'headboddylwatcher' is a canopic jar and 'Totumcalmum' is Tutankhamen and totally calmed.
'Headboddylwatchers' - head bottle watchers, or canopic jars

There's a lot of Ancient Egyptian stuff in the final chapter.  At the beginning, we get this passage, which Olwen recited:

The eversower of the seeds of light to the cowld owld sowls that are in the domnatory of Defmut after the night of the carrying of the word of Nuahs and the night of making Mehs to cuddle up in a coddlepot, Pu Nuseht, lord of risings in the yonderworld of Ntamplin, tohp triumphant, speaketh. 593.20-4

The bringer of light to the souls in the dormitory of the deafmute, after the night of Shaun and Shem, the Sunrise, lord of risings in the underworld of Dublin, triumphant, speaks. 

In other words, the rising Sun triumphantly speaks to, and wakes, the sleepers of Finnegans Wake.

That's another parody of the Book of the Dead, which has 'The overseer of the house of the overseer of the seal, Nu, triumphant, saith.' Joyce has reversed words to make up Egyptian-sounding names - 'Nuahs' and 'Mehs' are Shaun and Shem. 'Pu Nuseht' is the Sun Up. 'Ntamplin' is a version of Dublin and 'tohp' is light (Greek 'photo').

The passage announces the big theme of the final chapter - waking up 'after the night' of the book. In Chapter One, Finnegan is told to stay asleep; in the final chapter, he's told to wake up ('Rise up, man of the hooths, you have slept so long!' 619.25).

The Ancient Egyptian name for the Book of the Dead was 'Chapters of Coming Forth by Day', which also describes the end of Finnegans Wake.

I loved the way that Olwen physically enacted the rising of the sun, raising it up like a balloon above her, and spinning round to see a shaft of light: 'Lok! A shaft of shivery in the act, anilancinant. Cold's sleuth!'

Joyce's 'salvation boat'? Ra represented by the scarab and the red disc, in the solar barque (boat)

Imagine that solar disk as a bar of Sunlight Soap. 


Finnegans Wake turns the reader, or theatregoer, into a creator of meaning. Joyce told Adolph Hofmeister that his book could 'satisfy more readers than any other book because it gives them the opportunity to use their own ideas in the reading'.

In a great article for Exeunt magazine Olwen describes some of the elements that she found in the text:

Finn MacCool 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. 

Riverrun is a show to see again and again, because, as an audience member you pick up on different elements, and find fresh meanings.

It's also different for Olwen every night: 'The river leads the way, a sound-dance of revolutionary energy, and it is impossible to surf it like an expert....We author our own way down the river, along with our audience, on a different journey each and every night.'

Going out, I photographed Olwen's footprints in the salt crystals on the floor

and wrote 'leafy' on the blackboard


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