Sunday, 20 August 2006

Explicating Joyce in Edinburgh

In a hot room above a pub, fitted out with church pews, a typical Fringe venue, an American called Adam Harvey performs Finnegans Wake Chapter 7, 'Shem the Penman', all the way from, ‘Shem is as short for Shemus as Jem is joky for Jacob’, to, ‘Quoiquoiquoiquoiquoi­quoi­quoiq’.
The style of rendition was to my mind rather ‘RSC’, lots of enunciation and mime, squeezing out every drop of sense. The set is two chairs of contrasting design, the actor wears (and eventually removed most of) a black suit and underwear; there is much business (all of it to the interpretative point) with a bowler hat and some white handkerchiefs. But the text is after all picturesque and theatrical, and Harvey’s programme note cautions sagely, ‘any attempt to confine this extraordinary language to a single interpretation threatens to violate its author’s intentions. So please enjoy this performance as the abstraction it is intended to be. Think less about what you’re not understanding than what you’re experiencing’. A tour de force certainly, to me it seemed more an educational / reading aid than a true piece of theatre, but thoroughly meritorious on those terms, and very enjoyable. Harvey has studied and memorised no less than 5 chapters of the book, ‘working on one phrase, one word, sometimes one syllable at a time’, and apparently presents them often at Joyce conferences. It would be great to have them on DVD.