Adelaide Festival: riverrun

Olwen Foueré in riverrun. Photo by Colm Hogan, Adelaide Festival of Arts
Olwen Foueré in riverrun. Photo by Colm Hogan, Adelaide Festival of Arts

riverrun was inspired a few years ago by a Bloomsday reading of the final page of James Joyce’s last novel, Finnegan’s Wake. Olwen Fouere (who did the reading in Australia) has adapted this writing into an intense solo show. Through the voice of the River Liffy’s personification, Anna Livia Plurabelle, she delivers a powerful literary performance journey.

It’s a challenging piece of theatre, heavy in both content and form. Densely poetic and weaving and winding erratically, it moves along the Liffy, flowing wildly in and out of experiences and emotions.

As an audience we attempt to stay with the monologue, a mammoth undertaking in itself, for it is very easy to drown in the wordy text. If you are a fan of Joyce, and want to concentrate utterly through-out you may be immersed. If not committed to either, then more than likely you will just flow along with the mesmerising rhythm of the performance, losing some of what is going on, as I admit that I did (as did the guy next to me, who shared that with me at the end of it all).

Fouere is a fine actor. She uses her strong voice and supple body like a river running unevenly over a changing course. Intense and loud one moment and racing wildly the next; she soars to erratic highs and crashes to whispering lows. Her rich Irish accent is perfect for the piece, albeit in the more chaotic and murmured moments, sometimes difficult to understand.

The co-direction of the piece is highly stylised and borders on uncomfortable at times. From the moment the show began with Olwen standing silent and still with an eery hum in the background (that went on and on), we feel that this will not be a conventional piece. It is not.

There is lots of arm swinging and thrashing around of a coat that she removes, whispering rushed words and breathing heavily into the snake-like standing microphone – strangely beautiful on the stark and magnificently lighten set; the interesting off-beat approach making it highly artistic although choices made not always with an easily identified reason.

No-one can question the theatrical quality of this perplexing and long hour. It is a finely created investigation of literary genius and the raw acting craft. It’s been acclaimed internationally, and more than likely will continue to be; but I’m not (entirely) sure what this work aims to impart. At times I felt like I was sinking in the bombardment of words, the flow and ebb of Joyce’s text within the performance form baffling and relentless, the rolling around river story suffocating. But maybe it is the questions about this fascinating work, the cadence of the often inaccessible language, and the courage associated in making this reflection (of Joyce’s last book), that makes it a success.

At the least, many of us walked away wondering; and wondering is usually a good thing where the meaning and reason of art is concerned.

Stephen House

Stephen is a writer with numerous plays, exhibitions and short films produced. He has been commissioned often and directs and performs his work. He has won two AWGIE Awards from The Australian Writers Guild and an Adelaide Fringe Award (as well as more), and has received several international literature residencies. Stephen has been Artistic Director of many events. He has been performing his acclaimed solo show, “Appalling Behaviour” nationally from 2010 – 2014 (100 shows to date). Stephen has 2 new works in development.

Stephen House

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