The Complexities of Nora and Jim

Bangor actor Thomas Galashan on his not-so celebratory portrayal of James Joyce based on famous letters to the writer's wife and muse

'I’ve heard this only an hour ago from his lips. My eyes are full of tears, tears of sorrow and mortification. My heart is full of bitterness and despair. I can see nothing but your face as it was then raised to meet another’s. I shall cry for days. O, Nora, have pity for my poor wretched love. I can’t call you any dear name tonight because tonight I’ve learnt that the only being I believed in has betrayed me.'

It’s a fierce, windswept day in October when I meet Thomas Galashan in Belfast. The atmosphere is almost symbolic to a jealous rage, similar to the kind that Galashan finds building within himself as he re-enacts the quote above as one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers, James Joyce.

We’re here to talk about Nora and Jim, a play written by Irish literature academic heavyweight Gerry Smyth, starring Bangor-born Galashan alongside Jade Thomson, both of Liverpool Irish Literary Theatre. Staged recently at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it creatively visualises the story of Joyce’s outraged letters to his beloved Nora Barnacle as he learns of her potential infidelity during the autumn of 1909.

'He is a man of extremities', explains Thomas. 'He takes himself to intense places very quickly. A soon as [Nora's alleged lover] Cosgrave is mentioned [in the play] he just explodes. There’s no consideration for how he might make Nora feel with his accusations.'

Galashan sips his pint as he begins to describe the process in filling the shoes of one of Ireland’s finest creative sons. It certainly isn’t a celebratory take on Joyce. His letters to Nora may be as poetic and handsomely written as some of his finest work, but they depict a man filled with jealousy, rage and insecurity. How does one channel such thoughts?

'I think you just hope as an actor that each time you get to that performance you trust that you’re going to take yourself there anyway. It’s instinctual', he says. 'I just try to let the feeling sit in my stomach. We know that feeling all too well. The feeling when you hear that someone has cheated on you or some wee lad has been in the foodcourt with your bird (laughs). I just try to emulate that feeling and remember what goes on internally when that happens – in your head, in your heart, in your gut.'

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Actors Jade Thomson and Thomas Galashan

The return letters from Nora have been imagined in the absence of any factual evidence. Throughout the script we see the thoughts of a woman who is very much ahead of her time. She has a modern voice, reverberating the cultural, emotional and legal views of women both past and present.

This has been done purposefully by Smyth; grasping the opportunity to speak up on an issue of inequality which is still very much alive today. 'On a grander scale he [Smyth] has given a voice to women at a time when they did not have one', informs Galashan. 'It’s a battle for a voice to be heard. Women are still fighting for equality in today’s modern world. It’s still so relevant and important.'

Despite Joyce’s mammoth leap to conclusions throughout the story, and the clear assumption of a man’s view of how a woman should be during the early 1900s, Galashan is convinced that the writer did truly love his wife. In a way, they were a couple from the future. So ahead of their time that they decided to have children out of wedlock and cast the Catholic Church aside during a period where it was massively frowned upon to do so.

The famous ‘dirty letters’ from Joyce are a shining, all be it grotesque, example of how sexually liberated the couple were. 'He was intense in every aspect of his personality', says Galashan. 'She [Nora] wasn’t like other girls. Of course, we don’t know much about her, but she seemed to have this quiet strength and confidence in herself.'

It’s this quiet confidence, fused with a tinge of sadness, which makes Nora such a forceful character. At a time when men and women had their roles and traditionally stuck by them, Nora shows Joyce up on several occasions, illustrating that the man would be nothing without his woman.

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'In the end, the play gives us this idea that she was his muse and inspiration as much as Dublin was. In a way, he needs her to mother him and pleasure him and look after him. He’s kind of lost and pathetic without her. You get this sense that he’s only as strong as she allows him to be.'

It’s expertly played out in the final scene, as an exhausted Nora resigns to the fact that she must adopt this role that Joyce has given her. Although it may look like someone who has given up, Galashan believes there is a subtle strength to her decision.

'It’s very powerful and sad, but there’s something about the ownership of her own suffering that is very poignant', he points out. 'It’s done brilliantly through the constant deconstruction of everything he says.'

As the curtain begins to fall on our time together, Galashan speaks passionately on the complex relationship between husband and wife; one so uniquely adopted through his time reading the writer's work and stepping into his mind.

'Joyce really recognised, and I believe you can see this in the letters that he wrote, that she was his inspiration. He was on a quest to become the greatest. He was as obsessed with Nora as he was with the idea of himself. The Goliath that he wanted to paint himself as. He really felt that she fed that and he really felt deeply within him that without her challenging him and driving him, without her giving him everything he wanted and everything she ‘ought’ to give him that he would be nothing.'