Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Pavillion, Dublin Theatre Festival 2018

Writer: James Joyce

Adaption: Arthur Riordan

Director: Ronan Phelan 

Everyone has heard of Joyce’s first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but how many would think to turn it into a stage play? As a master of prose, it is not a common event to see his works brought to the stage yet director Ronan Phelan and Arthur Riordan have accepted the challenge.

Portrait is one of the festival’s big hitters and the pre-show publicity has been in full force. A Rough Magic production, expectations are high for this festival production. This adaptation contains much of the original James Joyce text and tries to steer a steady line between translation and adaptation. For someone unfamiliar with the original this version was enjoyable and easy to follow as Stephen Dedalus embarks on a journey to create his own identity within the confines and restrictions of Catholic Dublin. The audience follows Stephen as he grows from a child into an independent thinker; breaking free of the oppression and limited options of the Ireland of his youth and moving into a future of experience and enjoyment.

Eight actors switch roles throughout, using clothing to signify their new personas. Throughout the first half one actor also acts as narrator until Stephen is ready to take ownership of his own story. The clever use of an Italia 90 shirt marks Stephen out as different from the start. As the play closes, however, even this attachment to Ireland’s nostalgia is buried beneath his desire for self-expression. Martha Green was the standout as the final incarnation of Stephen as she portrays the glee and feeling of freedom that Stephen finds by realising that he can walk out of the life preordained for him and into a new one of his own making.

There is little to place this version in a specific time which helps the play to move through the decades but also works to smooth off some of the harsher edges of Stephen’s rebellion. An image of the Virgin Mary dominates the right – hand side of the stage making it clear that at all times religion, the Catholic Church, is looking down on the goings on, standing in judgement of Stephen’s actions from infancy. Although this clearly drove the point home the text was strong enough in this regard to not need the ostentatious visual reminder. The parents were fascinating characters and as Stephen ages, their importance, particularly that of his father, begins to fade into the background. It might have been nice to see more of his mother and further examine the struggle Stephen faced as his move away from the Church also meant isolating himself from his homeland and his own mother.

Aside from the occasional flashes of vibrancy where movement and music gel as Stephen wrestles with feelings of lust and guilt this adaptation doesn’t quite manage to light up the stage.

Image: Contributed