riverrun: Olwen Fouéré on the voice of the river
More Information

TheEmergencyRoom and Galway Arts Festival present

Adapted, co-directed and performed by Olwen Fouéré
Sound Design/Composition by Alma Kelleher
Costume by Monica Frawley
Lighting Design by Stephen Dodd
Co-Directed by Kellie Hughes

Galway Arts Festival :
18th-27th July,  Druid Lane Theatre, Galway

Kilkenny Arts Festival :
15th-18th August, The Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny

Dublin Theatre Festival
2nd-6th October, Project Arts Centre

Main Image:
Olwen Fouéré in riverrun. Photo: Colm Hogan

Left: Olwen Fouéré in Mark O'Rowe's Terminus, Abbey Theatre (on Tour) 2011.


riverrun: Olwen Fouéré on the voice of the river

"I think the river itself is a brilliant metaphor for exactly what the book does. It operates like a blood stream through everything. It’s like the energy of waking up and moving on..." 
Susan Conley visits TheEmergencyRoom's rehearsals of riverrun, to discuss James Joyce's Finnegans Wake with adaptor, codirector and performer, Olwen Fouéré.

It occurred to me, before going to meet Olwen Fouéré at a rehearsal for her upcoming performance, riverrrun, that I should maybe give Finnegans Wake a look in. The piece is based on it, after all. I remember feeling quite smug when I had got through Ulysses — ‘got through’ it, like it was a course of antibiotics; got through it, and moreover, ‘got it’ to the degree to which I felt, well, smug.
I passed a used bookshop, and given the time of year that was recently in it, there was more than one edition of Joyce’s 1939 tome in the window. I went in and picked one up… and decided that maybe I didn’t need to be a last-minute Joyce scholar after all. ‘You’re right, because in a way, that’s very much the approach I took,’ Fouéré assured me when I said as much. ‘There are so many Joyce academics out there, I was incredibly tempted to sit down with them all when this idea was born. I realised that I had to make my own journey through it, find out what I wanted to do first — and then it started to lead me.’
Also: Gatz, it ain’t. ‘No!’ she laughs. ‘It’s not an adaptation of Finnegans Wake, it’s my own take on the voice of the river. I think the river itself is a brilliant metaphor for exactly what the book does. It operates like a blood stream through everything. It’s like the energy of waking up and moving on, it’s incredibly positive energy. I think it leads to a much more lateral form of thinking, much less of a rational, logical way of approaching ideas of the world.’
A force of nature herself, Fouéré is known for taking an artistic approach to theatre, one that has little to do with traditional beginnings, middles and ends. ‘I’m far more interested in forms of communication that aren’t about stories. A story is a very basic way of communicating an idea, and I get very angry when people say theatre is all about storytelling — no, it is about live experience. We don’t ask what music means! Allowing space for poetic form, I think it’s so important, especially in the world we live in.’
How did she get to this conceptual place? ‘I don’t know what the influence was, but it was a very strong feeling, from a very young age, that there was a whole chunk of existence that was incommunicable with the reality we live in, and that it takes a revolutionary force to break through that.’
Fouéré and her co-director, Kelly Hughes, sit on the floor, in the general vicinity of their notebooks; while they do consult them, either would as soon leap to her feet to explain something as write it down in words. The atmosphere seems pretty easygoing: both are wearing loose, casual clothing, the studio in The Lab is lit only by natural light, and a microphone is planted in the centre of the room, its lead snaking sinuously, by happenstance, stage right.
Fouéré says yes and yes and yes to every note from Hughes, and after they’ve thoroughly dissected the sequence they’re working on for the day, she joins the mic and begins. Out of her, and through her, runs a torrent of text, and suddenly, the room comes alive. Any technique for imposing meaning upon the words is, for all intents and purposes, almost useless. It’s something like having an uncertain grasp of a foreign language: some thoughts and phrases leap out of the rush, like fish, and in the giddiness of recognition, the next movement is lost. Eventually, meaning, and the need to make it, becomes secondary to allowing this flood of sound wash over, around and through me.
‘A friend of mine who began reading the Wake described it as: he felt he was going down a river, and every now and again he could hold onto a branch and know what it was, but then he’d let go. Hopefully once the natural desire to understand is let go of, it’s an amazing journey,’ she explains. ‘Whatever language you speak completely shapes your reality. It shapes you culturally. It’s the result of a whole lot of forces that you have no control over. I certainly experienced as a child, being in between two languages, and that was the true place, not the English or the French — the in between. I think this gives voice to that place of silence, which is a really weird way of trying to describe it.’
Was it Joseph Campbell who said that meaning is made in between words, in between thoughts? ‘The first three words I speak in this piece are Sanskrit for the junction of all things, the in-between place, the junction between night and day. I feel the whole book travels that way, between definitions and what’s so beautiful about it is that it manages somehow to remain non-fixed.’
Fouéré’s own career resides in that non-fixed place. She is as likely to be found touring a play around the world as she is to be in a four hour durational performance of Amanda Coogan’s Yellow — and as likely to be in the film version of Yellow with Coogan as to be in a movie with Sean Penn. It was while on tour with Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus that this piece started its incubation. In Sydney on Bloomsday in 2011, she was asked to read from Ulysses during a commemorative event; she agreed under the condition of being allowed to read from the Wake as well. ‘As I was doing it, I literally had hairs standing up on the back of my neck and I felt something in the room. I suddenly thought, “I can do this because it’s going out of copyright in January 2012…” That was it. I literally stopped reading it, and stepped down from wherever I was, and I said “I want to make a piece about it.” ’
How does the energy of her desire to create feel, over time? Does it get any easier?
Terminus-Olwen-(1).jpg‘I have this little barometer somewhere inside me, where I can sense if I’m starting to tread the same ground.’ She responds, immediately, like it’s something she thinks about, often. And it is. ‘It’s not about, “Oh, I don’t want to do that play” or anything like it — it’s more to do with the challenges that present themselves, the country your working in, the people you’re working with. About two years ago, I turned down a load of work, after touring Terminus, and it wasn’t about needing space — I needed to open myself for the unexpected. It was a dedicated venture towards trying to welcome in the unexpected, something new, something that was going to bring me along.
‘I had already had this idea by then so I knew that this was going to demand my attention quite soon. It was just a really positive step for me to take that time out. It can be financially difficult, but I think everyone has to do it, every artist has to do it at some point.’
Done for the day, the company are lucky to have secured the rehearsal room exclusively for themselves, so they can let the space be. The speakers stay up, the laptops are shut down, the work clothes are bundled into a corner. Before leaving, though, Fouéré goes over to the mic lead: it had become straightened out at some stage, and she coaxes it back into its sinuous scrawl across the floor. It’s a detail that matters, one that was perceivable as pure chance, but was in fact a conscious choice, and it sums up Fouéré as much, if not more, than words can do. Everything is artful; nothing is an accident.

Susan Conley is a cultural critic and author.

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