by Kate Bassett, March 14th, 2014 

A river runs through the National Theatre’s space for radical experimentation. As set designs go, the said river is teasingly understated (and not the Thames flooding, in case you were worried). In the middle of this black-box studio is a microphone stand, its shaft buckled into meandering bends, faintly gleaming. Its flex winds away into the distance, as if heading for the sea.

What the small, sinewy performance artist Olwen Fouéré is about to launch into is her single-handed adaptation of James Joyce’s last work, Finnegans Wake. Transferring from Ireland’s Galway Arts Festival, it’s her rendering of what she calls the “voice of the river” which — she explains in a programme note — is Life or the Liffey and which courses through the book, notably emerging in its fourth, climactic section.

 Now, I ought to flag up a warning. Finnegans Wake (from 1939) defies comprehension: a bewildering stream of distorted, polyglot and portmanteau words stretching to more than 600 pages. Here’s a taster, for those who have never dipped a toe in the waters: “Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Calling all downs. Calling all downs to dayne. Array! Surrection. Eireweeker to the wohld bludyn world.” As bedtime reading, this is prone to make even the determined nod off.

 Yet Fouéré makes the Wake electrifying and entertaining, with honed theatricality, an almost possessed intensity and playfulness. Barefoot, with a hawk-handsome face, snow-white ponytail and a snaky, silvery suit, she is uncannily ageless and sexless, maybe elfin but also shaman-like, swaying with hint of aboriginal dance. Though this is a monologue, she is the conduit for a legion of voices, a babbling universe, sometimes whispering, sometimes roaring. The voices sound like snatches of ancient legends, eerie galactic gods, the wind blowing, lovers quarrelling, satirised liturgies, wide boys’ baloney, radio announcements, pontificating anthropologists, childish babble, schizophrenic derangement (with, perhaps, echoes of Joyce’s certified daughter).

 Plotless, this one-hour show can’t quite sustain its grip, but it’s amazing how compelling things half-understood can be.


Box office: 020-7452 3244, to Mar 22