A Portrait of the Artist...

Dublin's New Theatre tour a stage adaptation of James Joyce's classic novel with mixed results

It’s so tempting to put novels on the stage: choose correctly, and the popularity of the story in your script is guaranteed already, the audience recognition factor a given as you launch your pre-publicity. In the modern era, think War Horse, a massive and ongoing success for the National Theatre, made out of Michael Morpurgo’s novel.

So competitive was the ‘play of the book’ trade in the Victorian era that enterprising companies didn’t even bother waiting for Charles Dickens’ serialised novels to be completed. They simply took the instalments available already and wrote their own endings. Crowds flocked to see the stage versions – it was a very lucrative line of business.

Till relatively recently it’s been impossible to stage the writings of James Joyce in the theatre, because they only finally emerged from copyright in January 2012, 70 years after the great Irish novelist died, aged 58, in Zurich.

Since then there’s been a steady trickle of Joyce adaptations for the theatre. The most recent of these, of his first completed novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, arrives at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, on tour from The New Theatre in Dublin.

The script is Tony Chesterman’s, but Portrait is by no means an easy adaptation. It’s full of long descriptive and analytical passages, which don’t dramatise smoothly, most notably the hell-raising sermons preached by Father Arnall at the religious retreat depicted in the novel.

Director Jimmy Fay’s framing of this key episode is initially striking, the tonsured skull of the prelate glowering over the cringing schoolboy Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s fictional persona), razing his imagination with gruesome images of lost souls trapped in eternal perdition.

What’s lacking is a sense of nuance and carefully sculpted dramatic structure. Actor Charlie Hughes, who plays the Father in aggressively Berkoffian fashion, is allowed to rant and rail with little attention to dynamic contrast, and not much more to variation of pacing.

The result is, frankly, a bit of a shouting match – the priest’s splenetic visions of sinfulness and damnation clobber the listener (and a defenceless Stephen) into hapless prostration, but are never insinuating and unsettling on an intellectual level, as Joyce intended them to be.

A similar lack of subtlety undermines another of the play's set-piece confrontations, the Christmas dinner in the Dedalus household. Parnell is the subject here, more specifically the manner of his death, and the conflicting views of his affair with Katharine O’Shea, a married woman.

Staging the scene with all five actors seated in a row facing the audience, and no table, introduces an element of stiff formality at odds with the family setting, and seems an odd decision.

The real problem, however, is that two of the actors, Patrick O’Donnell as John Casey, the Irish nationalist friend of Stephen’s father Simon, and Katie O’Kelly as the devout Dante (Stephen’s governess), again resort to crude caterwauling as they wrestle over the Parnell issue and their attitudes towards the priesthood. Domestic arguments can be that way, of course. On stage, however, we probably need a more gradated approach, and a little more clarity of presentation.

There are other difficulties. One is the set, which on one side consists of what looks like remaindered shelving from IKEA, and on the other a bare black trellis. Though the costumes are broadly in period, the setting isn’t, and it proves inflexible in adapting to the novel’s different settings.

The attitude to casting is also curious. Stephen/Joyce himself is played by Lauren Farrell, presumably to emphasise the strong feminine elements in the make-up of the character, compared to the lumpen specimens of Irish manhood he grows up with.

Cumulatively, however, it’s not a successful decision – there are simply too many moments of avoidable incongruity, as when Stephen has his/her flowing female tresses unravelled and washed by his/her friend Cranly. And why does he/she wear black lipstick? Again, the gesture seems totally unnecessary, if not risible.

It’s also difficult to fathom why, at one point, a female actor plays the university dean, while a cross-dressing male actor impersonates one of the seedy prostitutes Stephen has been consorting with. The cross-gendering in the production goes too far, not least because it is singularly unilluminating.

This fiddly, voguish approach to Joyce’s novel is a regular distraction from its central narrative, the thrust of which is further diluted by the lop-sided nature of the evening, where the second half, after the interval, is only half the length of the first.

A feeling of anticlimax is, in the circumstances, almost inevitable, and it’s a pity that Stephen’s ringing apostrophisation of his own artistic future at the novel’s conclusion seems premature and undermotivated by what has preceded it, and makes such a flatly underwhelming impression.

All of which goes to show that putting Joyce on stage is an inherently perilous business, particularly when it comes to communicating the warm suffusion of fellow-feeling and empathy which pervades his fiction, even when the characters who populate it are full of foibles and all-too-human weaknesses.

It can be done: Glasgow’s Tron Theatre company brought a superbly realised distillation of Ulysses to The MAC in Belfast 18 months ago, setting the bar high for the fledgling Joyce adaptation industry. Their take on Portrait would make interesting viewing; perhaps one day we will see it.

Visit the Lyric Theatre website for information on forthcoming events.