Joyce’s Women – Abbey Theatre – Review
A co-production between the Abbey Theatre and Eilene Davidson Productions
17 September – 15 October 2022
This new play by Edna O’Brien tells the story of Joyce through the women who surrounded him during his life. As O’Brien said, “to paint the canvas of his life was daunting”, so instead she has chosen to depict Joyce as seen through the eyes of others. O’Brien is a well-known writer and published novels such as The Country Girls (1960). Significantly, she also wrote a biography of Joyce which was published in 1999. While the characters in this production are real, this is a work of fiction and the scenes depicted have no strong basis in truth. O’Brien uses elements and phrases from Joyce’s work to inform the piece.
We first meet his mother May (Deirdre Donnelly); who visits Joyce as a phantom from beyond the grave. She is possibly a creation of Joyce’s over-active imagination, as she admonishes him for the lifestyle he has chosen. He sits alone at a table in a cafe, trying to ignore this ghoul that has turned up to reprimand him.
Later we see other members of his family, his wife Nora Barnacle (Bríd Ní Neachtain); along with his daughter Lucia (Genevieve Hulme Beaman). Lucia was diagnosed with schizophrenia and we see her erratic behaviour, often volatile and destructive. She is at the heart of the piece, as we see the damage her illness does to those around her.
Outside of his family, we meet characters such as Joyce’s lover Martha Fleischmann (Caitríona Ní Mhurchú) and even his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver (Ali White), who was instrumental in getting his work published. Each character is used to fix Joyce at a point in his life, as we see a series of vignettes to try and glimpse this complex man.
There are two prolonged filmed sequences during this play, with a screen falling at the front of the stage and images projected onto it. These tell the story of Lucia, from her time in an institution and beyond. Why it was decided to film these sections is unclear, as the large cast available could easily depict them live on stage.
The set by Sabine Dargent is an impressive wall of mirrors and glass, making the viewer unsure if they’re seeing a reflection or the space beyond. The scenes in other settings are created using simple curtains as backdrops. The stage feels closer to a movie set, and the lavish soundtrack by Conor Linehan (Composer) and Ivan Birthistle (Sound Design) further enhances this cinematic touch.
At times, it feels like the writer knew too much about her subject and struggled to get it all onto the page. There is no strong cohesive thread between the various scenes and as such, at times it is difficult to see why these moments were chosen for inclusion. The character of Lucia, while fascinating in her own right, dominates the play. Lucia’s wild and powerful personality, along with her displays of childishness and occasional violence make for difficult viewing. The play often feels like an insight into her mental illness.
The cast does well with the various characters, with Genevieve Hulme Beaman standing out with her forceful character. Stephen Hogan is an understated James Joyce, rarely taking centre stage as you might expect. There are many positive aspects to this new production, but it is always a difficult task to capture the essence of a man on the stage, especially a public figure like Joyce. This complex collection of characters remains elusive and difficult to pin down.
May Joyce: Deirdre Donnelly
Brigitte Zimmerman: Hilda Fay
James Joyce: Stephen Hogan
Lucia Joyce: Genevieve Hulme Beaman
Stanislaus Joyce: Patrick Moy
Zozimus: Bill Murphy
Nora Barnacle: Bríd Ní Neachtain
Martha Fleischmann: Caitríona Ní Mhurchú
Harriet Shaw Weaver: Ali White
Waiter/Young Boy: Emmet Farrell
Nurse: Dympna Heffernan
Male Attendant/Medico : Oliver Flitcroft
Male Attendant/Medico : Barry Simpson
Writer: Edna O’Brien
Director: Conall Morrison
Set Design: Sabine Dargent
Costume Design: Joan O’Clery
Lighting Design: Ben Ormerod
Composer: Conor Linehan
Sound Design: Ivan Birthistle
Movement Director: Justine Doswell
AV Designer: Neil O’Driscoll
Assistant Director: Gea Gojak
Design Assistant: Saoirse O’Shea
Hair, Makeup & Wigs: Leonard Daly
Fight Director: Alan Walsh
Casting Director: Sarah Jones
Voice Director: Andrea Ainsworth