James Joyce once called Ireland's National Theatre, the Abbey Theatre, "a factory for producing dwarf drama." If he were alive to see their production Joyicity, he would have had to eat his words. A oneman play written by Ulick O'Connor, Joyicity is a rare opportunity to see the words of James Joyce come alive.
Vincent O'Neill's performance in Joyicity defies the term monologue. He plays more than 40 Joycean characters, interspersed with renditions of the author himself. For long-time Joyce fans, his impersonations will stir up recollections of the devilishly spirited "Gracehopper" in Finnegan's Wake and the roaring Citizen in Ulysses. But even for the uninitiated, O'Neill makes Joyce accessible.
This production achieves accessibility through O'Neill's striking combination of talents. Not only is he a dynamic speaker, but he is also a powerfully expressive mime, trained by Marcel Marceau. And for the virtually impenetrable Finnegan's Wake, mime is the audience's salvation from a potentially tedious recitation of word-play in 37 languages. Director Catherine Fitzgerald has skillfully balanced the priority due to the written word with physical enactments that provide crucial footnotes to the text.
Nora Barnacle was certainly Joyce's first love, but Joyicity reminds the audience that "dear dirty Dublin" was his lifelong mistress. Leaving Dublin only meant sharpening his perspective on what he had left behind. And while Joyce's characters come in all shapes and sizes, they remain quintessentially Irish.
O'Connor's selection of text seems to be centered most strongly on religion, certainly an apt focal point for any modern Irish production. The audience witnesses the young Joyce wrestling with the yoke of religion, especially as emblematized by his mother--he is willfully, brashly iconoclastic. The more mature Joyce creates Leopold Bloom, who has settled on universal love as the only acceptable doctrine.
Even when treating subject matter as weighty as religious prejudice, Joyce always embraces the reader with his humor--"it's very hard to bargain with that kind of woman. They say it was a nun who invented barbed wire."
After magnetizing the audience with glimpses of Ulysses, O'Neill intrepidly leads the audience into Finnegan's Wake. He gently holds the audience's hand through most of it, relating (in standard English) the background Joyce had acquired in the language and culture of many countries, and explaining the transition from odyssey of the conscious to odyssey of the unconscious.
Suddenly the audience slips into the world of gibberish in which Joycean characters--and O'Neill it seems--thrive, a world of swiftly tilting pitch and agrammatical word structures too bizarre to be termed sentences. It is a testament to O'Neill's virtuosity that the audience watches him make unintelligible sounds yet is still intuitively mesmerized.
O'Connor is fortunate to have material this rich and this timeless with which to work. This travelling production of Joyicity played to packed audiences at the Dublin Theatre Festival. Its one-night staging in Toronto elicited 17 curtain calls. And judging from the quality of this engagement, such praise was well-deserved.