The restrictive copyright on James Joyce’s work was lifted in 2012, meaning we are set to see a glut of theatrical interpretations of his work. One such interpretation, right out of the traps, is Frank McGuinness’ dramatisation of Joyce’s beloved short story from Dubliners, The Dead, which opened this past December in the Abbey Theatre.
The Dead is set in Dublin in January 1904, and centres the annual party thrown by ‘the Misses Morkan’, elderly sisters Julia and Kate. Their dinner is widely attended but the focus is primarily on their nephew Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta. Set on the night of the Feast of the Epiphany, Gabriel himself is set for an epiphany of his own when, at the end of the night, after the dancing and merry-making, he discovers that his wife had loved before him…
The production, directed by Joe Dowling, opened strongly with the entire cast assembling on stage, singing ‘O, Ye Dead’ from Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies. Indeed, music, which features strongly throughout, is an area where the medium of theatre trumps the written word. The singing helps not only to evoke the ambiance of an era, but is also utilised during the scene-changes, allowing for a seamless effect.
The journey from page to stage is not easy, but McGuinness is not only a writer of original work – he is also a prolific adaptor of others’. This adaptation plays it safe in terms of its faithfulness to the original text, with McGuinness directly lifting lines of dialogue from The Dead. Sometimes characters speak directly to the audience, as is the case with Lily the maid, to explain their inner feelings. Occasionally, the script did feel a bit exposition-heavy, with characters explicating things that would be well known to other characters, purely for the audiences’ sake – for example, ‘Don’t they own this big house in Usher’s Island?’ It is nevertheless a thrill to see moments you have previously read about come to life in such close proximity.
The script is well served by the actors, which is to be expected from a production in our national theatre. In the roles of drunkard Freddie Malins and his long suffering mother, Lorcan Cranitch and Rosaleen Linehan were a comic double act and real scene-stealers. Cranitch in particular deserves a special mention, for not only does he ably play Freddie as a blundering lush, he also captures Freddie’s humanity, which a lesser actor might have steam-rolled over in the quest for laughs.
Stanley Townsend as Gabriel proved more problematic however. The casting of Gabriel is crucial to the success of the telling of the story. The entire piece, it can be said, hinges on Gabriel’s reaction to Gretta’s revelation at the end. While there is no doubt that Townsend is a fine actor, I felt that he was miscast in this central role. His accent sounded, to this Corkonian anyway, like north-side Dublin, at odds with the accents of his aunts and those around him. Furthermore, he lacked the requisite sensitivity for such a part. Gabriel, a Joyce-alike with a European sensitivity, feels out of step with the people around him, like the Nationalist Molly Ivors. Townsend doesn’t capture the awkwardness during their exchanges. Where this Gabriel excelled were during the scenes where he was required to be something of a raconteur – the speech-giving at the dinner for example. But it wasn’t enough. And in that crucial scene where he finds out about Gretta’s past love, Townsend seemed to take it all in stride. The final passage (‘His soul swooned slowly’) is delivered as a speech by Townsend and in his hands it feels brusque. For a play based on character, not action, this made for a disappointing ending.
Overall, however, this is both a visually and aurally rich production. Despite any perceived faults (and adaptations do have a lot of baggage attached to them), The Dead beautifully depicts the genteel world of a bygone era.