To mark the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Edna O’Brien’s stage portrait of the artist is created through the eyes of the women around him. Commissioned by the Abbey Theater and co-produced with Eilene Davidson Productions, this new ensemble play reflects 91-year-old O’Brien’s lifelong admiration for Joyce’s work.
Through the characters of his mother, May (Deirdre Donnelly); wife, Nora Barnacle (Bríd Ní Neachtain); daughter Lucia (Genevieve Hulme Beaman); lover Martha Fleischmann (Caitríona Ní Mhurchú); and patron Harriet Shaw Weaver (Ali White), episodes from their lives in exile in Trieste, Paris and Zurich are evoked. In flashback and reverie, Joyce’s words – taken from his short stories, novels, poetry and letters – weave through each scene; life and work inextricably.
While Nora waits for news from the hospital in Zurich where Joyce is critically ill in 1941, she tells her story to Brigitte (Hilda Fay). Happier days fill her mind: her courtship of Joyce (Stephen Hogan) in Dublin. “Your soul seems to me the most beautiful and melancholy soul in the world,” he tells her, and persuades her to leave Ireland with him.
While Nora’s endurance through many years of cravings has been widely documented, the focus here is on her hardening relationship with her daughter Lucia and jealousy over Lucia’s closeness to Joyce. Through their creativity and imagination, father and daughter have a bond, and Joyce takes the passionate, later mentally ill, Lucia as inspiration for Anna Livia in Finnegans Wake. Hulme Beaman portrays Lucia’s expressiveness as a dancer, as well as her violent rage, with convincing vulnerability. One of the most touching scenes is when the always generous Weaver visits the dying Joyce and he tells her how he longs to see Lucia.
At its best, Conall Morrison’s sumptuous production conveys O’Brien’s deeply empathetic identification with Joyce – even if some less delicate staging drags it down. A chorus of Dublin voices – accompanied by menacing projected images – commenting on Joyce’s status as a national literary figure seems heavy-handed, while frequent sung interludes of traditional ballads are also exaggerated. What remains is a sense of the fascinating dialogue and interaction between one remarkable writer and another.
• At the Abbey theatre, Dublin, until 15 October as part of the Dublin Theater Festival.