I’d be lying if I said I completely understood the meaning of Olwen Fouéré’s astounding riverrun. But in a way, that’s not the point. Sometimes there are performances that grip you by virtue of their virtuosity, distinction and uniqueness.
Such a one is riverrun and Olwen Fouéré’s personal approach to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Riverrun is `based’ on the imagined voice of the river – the Liffey in Dublin or river of life in its many forms as Fouéré writes in the programme. In doing so, she embraces the power and energy encompassed in Joyce’s extraordinary language which at one and the same time can sound like gobbledygook, at another the mischief and spontaneity of a schoolboy discovering words for the first time, playing with them and luxuriating in their newness for their own sake.
Fouéré’s sixty minutes adaptation is the quintessence of theatrical performance in a form I’ve certainly never seen before. Controlled, concentrated, her body is a divine instrument as she locks onto a word pattern and releases a meaning through an extraordinary syncopation and discipline of mind and body that encompasses the material, the physical and metaphorical. Androgynous, terrifying, vulnerable, the precision of her articulation is a marvel (and an object lesson) that carries the audience, like she the performer, on a wave of energy.
At moments, she is the mouth from Beckett’s `Not I’ (it suddenly becomes very clear to what extent Beckett is Joyce’s inheritor in his verbal playfulness as much as his metaphysical darkness), at others Lucky from Waiting from Godot or a ghostly recall from Synge’s Riders to the Sea.
Looking as if the wind might carry her away any moment, Fouéré and her team cleverly alternate moods, splitting the narrative – for yes, there is one if only sensed – into atmospheric episodes . Yet always the sound of the surge of the river is never very far away and Fouéré, now in blazing spotlight, now in shadow commands our attention totally and mesmerically as she dives and surfs the torrent of made-up words, the Sanskrit, mythical, political and religious references that inhabit this most fertile of gaelic and world imaginations.