The Dead

Derbhle Crotty and Stanley Townsend in 'The Dead' by James Joyce, dramatised by Frank McGuinness for the Abbey Theatre. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Derbhle Crotty and Stanley Townsend in 'The Dead' by James Joyce, dramatised by Frank McGuinness for the Abbey Theatre. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Clare O’Malley and Mark Lambert  in 'The Dead' by James Joyce, dramatised by Frank McGuinness for the Abbey Theatre. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Clare O’Malley and Mark Lambert in 'The Dead' by James Joyce, dramatised by Frank McGuinness for the Abbey Theatre. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Frank McGuinness’ dramatisation of James Joyce’s short story presents the one thing Joyce could not: music. The presence of so many musical people in the story The Dead, and the vital role of the haunting but unheard (by the reader) 'The Lass of Aughrim' attest to the importance of evoking the sense of what Joyce called “Distant Music”: distant, but not absent, and yet not heard. In his writing he would find a literary analogue for the rhythms, harmonies, and tonalities of music across his poems, stories, and novels, and in The Dead in particular he wrote of its power. He was also, we’re told, a fair singer. But we don’t have that side of Joyce as a living experience in our encounter with his texts. So when McGuinness deliberately includes the songs of Thomas Moore and a variety of other period-appropriate musical texts in his dramatisation, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is.

As the curtain raises we are presented with a dark set peopled by shadowy figures singing Moore’s ‘Oh, Ye Dead’, and it rather seems like we’ve wandered into a slightly macabre version of a West End musical. The sombre scene gives way to the bright bustle of a party in preparation and progress, where Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting designs bounce off Joan Bergin’s costumes in front of Riccardo Hernandez’ set in ways that make it all seem very chocolate-box lovely, festive, and merry. The performances are equally bright, with heaps of energy from every player, and a grand, show-stealing turn from Rosaleen Linehan as Mrs. Malins. The exuberance extends through David Bolger’s movement direction and choreography set to Conor Linehan’s compositions and arrangements of the various songs that become an essential component of the staging. The play is full of music, song, and dance, all of it serving to amplify and exemplify the emotions spoken and unspoken in the dialogue. You could argue it’s all redundant, but it’s also vividly theatrical, and frees McGuinness from the potentially deadening ‘adaptation’ of the text into a recital.
It almost works. Almost. In spite of the elegance with which McGuinness and director Joe Dowling navigate Joyce’s text, already weighted with the legacy of literary greatness and a definitive film adaptation, they do come up against the printed word in the end. Throughout the play the action has been cleverly broken into small dramatic units that allow a few actors to occupy key positions on stage for conversation while the ensemble discreetly fills out the background, but the ensemble is always present. The world of the play is populous and filled with activity, crowded out, as per the text, with an overburden of memory and a foreshadowing of future changes that shape that pleasant, funny world inhabited by this gathering of friends. But the play concludes, like the story, with isolation and separateness as Gretta (Derbhle Crotty) and Gabriel (Stanley Townsend) retire to The Gresham and Gretta breaks against her memories of her dead paramour while Gabriel watches, helpless.
Stanley Townsend and Fiona Bell. Photo: Ros KavanaghAs a scene, it should be simple enough to stage, but like the Huston film, there is a radical change of texture with this final moment, and the interiority of Joyce’s inner monologue cannot be captured by the externalised presentation of Gabriel’s thoughts. His ruminations become a clumsy speech that is almost difficult to listen to, and this isn’t merely down to Townsend’s delivery. Townsend’s reading of the character has been not overly suggestive of the reflectiveness required to make the final speech work, true. But this has allowed him to render Gabriel as a convincingly ordinary individual in Joyce’s world of aspirations, pretentions, and constant glaring reminders of the common muck of reality that breaks the spell of bonhommie. Gabriel isn’t a tragic figure, or even a particularly sympathetic one: he is simply another Dubliner, and that too fits in its own way. But when it comes to the ending, that exquisite sadness and elegaic resignation written by Joyce is too bluntly delivered as spoken dialogue. It could have used a song. This is reserved for the much more effective contrapuntal oscillation between Gretta’s wordless moans and sobs and Pascal Kennedy as the ghost of Michael Furey singing again 'The Lass of Aughrim'. In the face of that harmonic (and counter-harmonic) expressivity, Gabriel’s speech just falls flat, and the play ends on a note of disappointing theatrical deflation. This is truly unfortunate given that so much has worked so well, and McGuinness’ genius bit of expressive reframing through music has been so totally disarming.
Harvey O’Brien is a writer and critic, and lectures in Film Studies at University College Dublin. His latest book is Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back (Nov, 2012).
  • Review
  • Theatre

The Dead by James Joyce, in a dramatisation by Frank McGuinness

11 Dec, 2012 - 19 Jan, 2013

Produced by the Abbey Theatre
In the Abbey Theatre

A dramatisation by Frank McGuinness of the short story by James Joyce

Directed by Joe Dowling

Composer and Musical Direction: Conor Linehan

Set Design: Riccardo Hernandez

Lighting Design: Malcolm Rippeth

Costumes: Joan Bergin

Sound Design: Ben Delaney

Movement Direction / Choreography: David Bolger

With: Fiona Bell, Anna Brady, Ingrid Craigie, Lorcan Cranitch, Derbhle Crotty, Morgan Crowley, Muiris Crowley, Jonathan Mitchell, Patrick Kelliher, Pascal Kennedy, Mark Lambert, Rosaleen Linehan, Laura Macken, Charlotte McCurry, Alison McKenna, Aileen Mythen, Clare O’Malley, Shane O’Reilly, Emma O’Kane, Derry Power, Anita Reeves, Stanley Townsend