Adapting Dubliners is no mean feat. James Joyce’s collection of stories is a mural of Dublin painted in portraits and miniatures, a cross-section of the city’s citizens. It focuses on those moments in a life that bring revelation and change, sometimes joyful but, in many cases, sad or grim or hopeless.
The Corn Exchange was certainly not daunted by their task. Annie Ryan’s direction uses her commedia dell’arte influences to create a stylized and energetic performance. And while my first reading of Dubliners left me memorably glum, this adaptation embraces the humour, the slapstick and the ridiculous of the everyday. What is striking about the ensemble’s performance is their physicality, which is lively, outrageous and perfectly timed.
It is sometimes difficult to transfer stories from page to stage, and West and Ryan tackle it by using a third person narrative to articulate a character’s inner workings. While this may throw one initially, it quickly becomes a natural part of the story-telling, and the lively flow of scene to scene never lets it drag.
Dubliners demands a cast of remarkable actors, and that is what this production delivers. The ensemble manages to evoke the population of a city as they assume lead roles in some scenes and passers-by in others. Annie Ryan obviously agrees with that comforting adage that directors tell actors: “no part is a small part’, for there is no character in this production that is easily forgettable. Mark O’Halloran is show-stealing in all his incarnations, from comedic one liners to loving husband.
Joe Vanek’s design is simple and effective, illustrating Dublin from city centre to Sandymount and Sinead McKenna’s artful lighting manages to capture the fog and gas lamp evenings of Joyce’s Dublin perfectly.
This is a production that makes one look at Dublin with fresh eyes; Joyce and Corn Exchange come together to make the street names sound exotic and the trivial momentous. There is a moment in the story ‘Evelyn’ in which she is taken to the Gaiety by her dashing sweetheart and the house lights come up – and we realize that we are there, in the story, and also here, watching it. So it is with Dubliners – we watch the Dubliners on stage and come away wondering if we are some of them. And if we are? Well then, life may be troublesome and strange but for the most part it’s a bloody good show.