riverrun runs wild in Brooklyn, with performance artist Olwen Fouéré

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Olwen Fouéré in riverrun at BAM. Photo Rebecca Greenfield.

Olwen Fouéré in riverrun at BAM. Photo Rebecca Greenfield.


Adapted, directed, and performed by Olwen Fouéré
Co-directed by Kellie Hughes
Sound design and composition by Alma Kelliher
Lighting design by Stephen Dodd
Costume design by Monica Frawley

performed at BAM, September 17-20, 2014
Presented in association with the Irish Arts Center

You’ve doubtless read somewhere or another or heard someone say that our relationship to novels is much like our relationships with people (our relationships to their authors, living and dead, are a whole other thing). That may sound trite, but it has its degree of truth. In no case is it so true as in the case of Finnegan’s Wake. In most cases James Joyce’s last novel is like some celebrity academic, who jets constantly between, say, Paris and Berkeley, but never crosses our path. Others may have approached the great man at the podium after a lecture and tried to ask a private question, only to be glared down with contempt for their stupidity. Luckier souls may have been rewarded with a condescending upward curl of the lip, ever so transparently feigning a smile, and perhaps a vague, even irrelevant answer. The still more fortunate may have aroused Finnegan’s interest, to the point of a drink or even a one-night stand (not necessarily the equivalent of reading the book from cover to cover), or a desperately frustrating semester-long relationship, or even an unstable marriage—the main problem being that novels are not only polygamous, but promiscuous. Judging from the post-performance discussion with the universal performance artist Olwen Fouéré, billed as “hosted by philosopher Simon Critchley,” Finnegan, mostly in the person of Anna Livia Plurabelle, has really slept around in Brooklyn, which is not to say that all the audience or, even the host, had enjoyed her ultimate favors. Like a goddess, the novel doesn’t care if her paramours are intelligent, learned, or even bathe. This congregation of Brooklynites and I’m sure a large contingent from the other boroughs, were most impressive in their diversity—and passion.

In any case, Olwen Fouéré did get an invitation to come to a young man’s bedroom and read him to sleep with Finnegan’s Wake—as well as some harsh criticism from a lady who found her performance and her concept too musical, arousing sharp protest from fellow members of the audience. ALP’s lovers, like Penelope’s suitors, are jealous and spiteful towards one another, and who can blame them?

For my part, I thought Fouéré’s solo performance piece created from excerpts from the novel, was faultless within its limits—limits set by the length and complexity of the novel, which all but exclude a complete treatment of this sort, above all physically, as her work was extremely demanding in this way, employing constant movement, with as much activity and bodily stress as a solo dancer might endure over the course of an hour. Fouéré demanded equal virtuosity from her voice, creating the stage equivalent of Joyce’s own mythic exploit—remembering that μῦθος means “word” as well as “story.” Joyce’s own recorded reading from Finnegan’s Wake—the Irish, even those who are not trained actors, can do things with words the rest of us can’t—is marvelous, but Ms. Fouéré was right in recognizing that a fully-equipped stage artist can go further, and her virtuoso performance proved this beyond a doubt. To get back to the unhappy lady’s comment, words, even in conglomerations much simpler than anything Joyce created, are as much music as sign or symbol, and Joyce’s own musical activities, either as an outstanding tenor or a composer, provide cogent circumstantial evidence that he was rather more guilty of making music with words than most. Just as Joyce broke the boundaries of words—in fact he only stretched them—Olwen Fouéré stretched the limits of performance, creating in fact the stage equivalent of the work which provided her text. I would have to do the same in this review to express my appreciation for her accomplishment, and I regret not coming to experience it more than once.

Fouéré got the notion of making a show from Finnegan’s Wake after she read the final page from the novel, à contre coeur, at a Bloomsday celebration in Australia. She made it clear that she had not and still has not read the entire book…but no matter. (Even in a long marriage, do we read our spouses from cover to cover?) As she thought of some method of excerpting the novel down to a performable size, she decided to follow the river, the Liffey, backward to its source, finally arriving at a convenient point at the beginning of Book Four. This tracing of the river back to its source was the literary equivalent of Richard Burton’s explorations of the Nile or one of Richard Long’s walking works. All the more powerful for the audience that they experience forwards that which was created in reverse. The next step was to gather her collaborators—for any professional solo show is a collaboration—and this one in particular was an elaborate Gesamtkunstwerk involving Stephen Dodd’s lighting and Alma Kelliher’s music and sound design, both entirely equal to the magnificent work of the principal.

Fouéré’s combination of artful speech, wordless human sounds, and sounds beyond the human, either animal or angelic, with movement and dance, both sinuous and contortional, is impossible to describe in its full detail. Its effect was alternately enchanting, mystical, sexy, and terrifying, to name only a few of my responses. This was not the only virtuoso performance BAM has offered in the course of what amounts to an Irish mini-season. Lisa Dwan’s splendid Beckett triple bill also brought astonishing power, capabilities, and discipline to a more constrained region of expression. But what more effective complement, important in itself, could there be to BAM’s traditional hommage to Beckett than this daedalian representation of his mentor’s all-generous fantasy!

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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