The challenge of celebrating literary legends in theatre is a tough one. How do you capture the essence of a much-celebrated writer whilst simultaneously maintaining the integrity of their material and creating something that is fresh and new? Two of the shows I’ve so far reviewed at the Fringe – Joyced! and Dylan Thomas: Return Journey – manage to achieve this, though they do it in different ways.
Joyced! takes us through a year in the life of James Joyce (1904), when the writer was twenty-two years old. We experience this through the eyes of Dublin market stallholder JoJo, who is obsessed with all things Joycean. JoJo performs a host of characters from Joyce’s world, including his difficult father, his lover Nora Barnacle and a ragtag bunch of Dublin greats and grotesques.
Katie O’Kelly slips from one character to another with skilful dexterity, from old frail ladies to drunken brutes. Her unstinting energy and her deft control of her voice and movements avoid the confusion audiences might feel when faced with such a rapid onslaught of different personae. The language feels utterly Joycean – rich, authentic and exquisitely lyrical – but the wonderfully inventive and unique plot avoids unfair comparisons with Joyce’s writing; the show exists on its own terms. Donal O’Kelly’s script does not try to ape Joyce, but rather celebrates him with integrity, wit and finesse. In this way, Joyced! becomes a fitting homage to the man himself.
Dylan Thomas: Return Journey was originally directed by Anthony Hopkins, and serves as his interpretation of the sell-out American tours the Welsh poet embarked on towards the end of his life. Blending a selection of Thomas’s stories, poems and anecdotes, the play is performed as if it is one of Thomas’s lectures so that the actor, Bob Kingdom, actually becomes Thomas. He touches on childhood memories, his relationship with his wife Caitlin, his literary career, his endless flight from his considerable debts, and reads a number of poems including ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ and ‘Fern Hill’.
Kingdom’s appearance, voice, mannerisms and style of address are uncannily like the man he is playing. The imitation doesn’t fall short, and the bulk of the play’s power comes from this astonishing likeness. Every sound and gesture Kingdom makes is full of the wit, pomp and undeniable charisma possessed by the poet during his lifetime.
So whilst Joyced! creates an entirely new story in order to celebrate the life and literary spark of James Joyce, Dylan Thomas: Return Journey takes from the stories Thomas already created during his life, shaping them into an original work. Both cherry-pick from the biography and writing of their respective heroes with astonishing results.
Go see these marvellous plays and celebrate the bountiful talent of both the living and the dead.
Joyced is on at Assembly George Square until 27 August, 16:45; Dylan Thomas:Return Journey is on at Assembly Hall until 27 August, 14:45.