A challenging ode to James Joyce, that’s an impressive feat of memory and physicality.

In his final outpouring, Irish author James Joyce distilled his unfathomable literary genius into one of the most notoriously impenetrable works in modern literature, Finnegan’s Wake. Those hoping to leave Olwen Fouéré’s one-woman tribute to Joyce’s final book with a heightened understanding of the literary work may be disappointed, but that’s not to say that Riverrun isn’t, in its own way, illuminating.

As the audience enter the small studio theatre of Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 2, Fouéré is already on stage. An icy, dull light falls on the solitary figure, a stony sentinel, stood on a bleak, grey coastline. A chalky, powdered shore stretches across the space, out of which a twisted microphone stand, like a piece of driftwood, juts surreally out of the surf, like a line of Joyce’s prose, inexplicable but there none the less. In the background we hear the rumbling, distant sound of waves breaking, as if a seashell is being held up to our ears.

As the audience settle, Fouéré slowly, deliberately removes her shoes and walks through the dusty sea to approach the microphone. From here she delivers her arresting performance; an astonishing feat of memory, physicality and intense commitment to her source material.

Fouéré’s ethereal, androgynous, nameless character is part sage orator, part crazed jester, part idiot savant. Her delivery is itinerant and restless: streams of Joyce’s unique consciousness are hurled at the audience faster than we can decipher them, in a cascade of ceaseless and meandering syllables, shrieks, grunts and overtone singing. Frantic, but carefully choreographed gestures assign a character to the dialogue, which implies a broad emotional spectrum to the performance without lifting the veil on the largely unintelligible babbling. There are moments of stillness in amongst this verbal tempest, filled with a profundity of we know not what. For some of the audience there are occasional rewards: a quirky, humourous, emerald coloured quip emerges from the text just long enough to provoke appreciative titters from a few. However, for the rest of us all we can do is marvel at the spectacle, trying to glean what recognisable words and phrases we can from the largely impassable dialogue.

While any narrative clarity might be frustratingly elusive, this is far from a wasted evening. Fouéré’s performance is undeniably captivating. She oozes a raw, almost hysterical energy and enthusiasm for this material which is hard to ignore. This is theatre that is brazenly close to performance art, yet there is a sense that without experiencing the entire, carefully curated selection from Finnegan’s Wake, the effect would be nothing more than gimmickry, instead of this ode to Joyce’s surreal masterpiece. Fouéré’s creative collaborators have constructed a deceptively versatile space for Riverrun to exist in. Stephen Dodd’s lighting design, with its gentle, almost unnoticed transitions, amplify the complexities of Fouéré’s highly physical performance and Alma Kelliher’s rich, dense sound design plays with the clattering sonorities of the dialogue and coastal backdrop.

Be under no illusions, Riverrun is an exceptionally challenging piece of theatre, but it does offer some surprising revelations. Fouéré reveals the music of Joyce’s words: the inherent song of Irish colloquialism that is the soul of this text. It is an unashamed, unselfconscious celebration of Joyce, without the slightest hint of disrespecting Finnegan’s Wake by attempting to dumb-down or unriddle this book’s literary tangle of words and meaning. For some, this won’t be enough to forgive Riverrun’s unsympathetic lack of any intelligible narrative. Like a bafflingly complex yet exquisitely crafted physics equation, a lucky few will see incredible beauty in it, while the rest of us will just have to go on faith that this is a work of genius.

Sydney Theatre Company present Riverrun, by Theemergencyroom and Galway International Arts Festival at Wharf 2 until 11 April.

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