Joyced! at the New Theatre – Review

I attended Joyced! for Guide2Dublin.com, and it was quite a good play actually. Honestly, I didn’t expect to enjoy a one-actor show, but when the actor is this good, it’s hard not to.

Joyced at The New Theatre Temple Bar Dublin – part of the Dublin James Joyce Festival

Review by James Keating

Early in Joyced! we hear that the author has been taken by academics, but really he is one of us, salt of the Earth, a simple man born in Rathmines. The play is an attempt by the first character we meet, a stallholder in a Rathmines market, to reclaim Joyce. It does so in fine style.

The story follows the personal life of Joyce, tracking the inspiration behind his work. We meet his father, a temperamental drunk; his friend, and later enemy, Oliver St. John Gogarty and a huge number of others, all of whom play a role in shaping both the young author’s life and his best-known work, Ulysses.

For those familiar with the people and the books there will be plenty of moments where the two intertwine. That shouldn’t put off those who are yet to delve into the labyrinth of words that is Joyce’s literature, however.

This is more than just referential nods to early 20th century Dublin, it’s a whistle-stop tour of the life of one of Ireland’s greatest talents. The uninitiated are safe in the hands of playwright Donal O’Kelly, who obviously grasps the Joycean language and rhythm, but is not so lost in it that it becomes incomprehensible to newcomers.

It helps that the sole actor, Katie O’Kelly, is excellent, as is the direction, from Sorcha Fox. Pauses and occasional repetition slow down what is a manic performance just enough for the audience to catch up.

The pace of Joyced! is relentless. Katie O’Kelly begins as a market stallholder, then spends the next 70 minutes leaping from role to role, changing her voice and contorting her face as she embodies each character she plays. It’s quite easy to become wrapped up in her performance and forget there is only one actor on stage.

The simple backdrop, a rather lovely painting of Rathmines, and minimal props, allow O’Kelly to stand out even more. She commands the stage and delivers a performance that at times seems controlled, then suddenly becomes wild and raucous.

At times the play deals in quite depressing themes, poverty and death amongst them, but never dwells. In fact, there is plenty of comedy, and O’Kelly’s spirited performance lent an almost slapstick style which gave life to the wonderful language she spoke.

The dialogue nails that Joycean style, but to reiterate, it will not alienate the unfamiliar. The play should actually offer a reasonably good introduction to Ulysses. We learn the origin of characters and their names. This is language that doesn’t seem at home outside a novel, but it has been adapted with obvious consideration for the stage.

The 70 minutes running time feels like half that. Joyced! is chaotic and wholly engaging. The audience is never allowed a moment to take a breath (except, of course, at the interval). It’s chaotic and wild, but brilliant, fantastically written and incredibly performed.

In the intimate New Theatre the play’s immediacy is heightened. The audience is close enough to Katie O’Kelly to see every move, every expression, and we can see just how much she throws herself into the performance.

The venue, at the back of Connolly Books on Essex Street in Temple Bar, fits the literary theme perfectly, and being able to buy a mug of tea and drink it during the performance is rather nice. You may even want to pick up a copy of Ulysses after seeing the play, so it’s handy to walk out of the theatre directly into a bookshop.

Joyced! is part of the Dublin James Joyce Festival, which runs from the 11th to the 23rd of June 2012. A number of other events will take place throughout the festival. Information is available on the New Theatre’s website at www.thenewtheatre.com

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