Review: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at the New Theatre

To be honest with you, I’ve always described Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel as a bit of a dose. Stephen Dedalus isn’t my most favourite person; I’m more of a ‘Bloomer’ myself. Yet Stephen’s story is integral to Ulysses and offers an insight into Joyce’s views of the artist and his attempts to fly by the nets flung at the soul of the artist – nation, language and church.

gi_image_thumbUlysses picks up where Portrait leaves off and most of the ground work for Stephen’s character building is done in Portrait so, unsurprisingly given the intensity of Stephen’s character – all that artistic angst, it can be heavy going. Adapted by Tony Chesterman and directed by Jimmy Fay; the New Theatre’s current stage production of Joyce’s first published novel provides the perfect insight into Joyce’s artistic discoveries, and is the ideal start to today’s Bloomsday celebrations.

The play travels chronologically through young Stephen’s life, each influential moment is captured and reproduced to build up to the artistic awakening that Stephen needed to go through in order to become the aspiring writer we meet up with again in Ulysses.

Knowing about Joyce’s life and the connection between him and Dedalus are helpful in understanding his work, but definitely not necessary. So, over-stating the autobiographical connections between Joyce and Stephen (the narrator persists in referring to him as Jim) and explaining chapter three’s ‘fire-and-brimstone-we’re-all-going-to-hell-for-eternity’ episode of sorts with a brief history lesson on the influences of the Catholic church during Joyce’s time, seemed to me taking a step too far to educate the audience on the life of Joyce. However, I have a good grounding in Joyce, and my theatre buddy who doesn’t have that benefit did say she found it helpful.

Performances from Lauren Farrell as the curious young Joyce and Katie O’Kelly in a variety of roles do not fail to impress. O’Kelly has the superb ability to morph her face into a variety of different expressions, and shone particularly as Aunt Dante in the Christmas dinner scene. For me, Charlie Hughes stole the show as Joyce’s Corkonian father as well as a terrifying and dominating rector in chapter three. Joyce’s characters are wonderfully well built and multi dimensional and I’d imagine a real joy for an actor to get hold of.

Chesterman has done a wonderful job adapting the novel to create an effective stage piece whilst also making a nod to Joyce’s artistic approaches at stages, for example Ithaca’s question and answer format makes an appearance and there’s a very conscious effort to include Joyce’s big passion – music, with singing and sound effects adding to the production. Thankfully the production manages to become its own piece of art, drawing inspiration from Joyce but also finding its own feet too.

The play is definitely worth going to, especially during ‘Bloom season’. It runs until June 22 in The New Theatre and you can find out more about performances here.

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