Epiphany at Town Hall Theatre: Joyce's 'The Dead' gets new lease of life for 21st century

The final story of James Joyce’s Dubliners provides a scaffolding for this fascinating new play by Brian Watkins for Druid. Joyce’s story is referenced and touched upon, and the characters are inspired by those of the original story, but this is not an adaptation, more a response.

Unfolding in real time over an hour and 45 minutes, the experience is like being an observer at an intriguing dinner party. First we meet the hostess simply called Morkan (Marie Mullen in top-flight form). Her sister Julia’s absence is explained later.

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Morkan has sent party-piece instructions in an attachment with her invitation which no one seems to have received, or bothered to read. The assembled guests await the celebrated Gabriel, who fails to appear and sends his speech along with his partner instead. As with Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, there is a sense of a lament for the civilised norms of the past, but there is a profound uncertainty about what is being lost. Nobody can agree. Nobody remembers what the meaning of epiphany is. The Magi were the three wise men. No they weren’t. Epiphany was a literary movement, perhaps. Confusion abounds. Nobody Googles it because Morkan has confiscated their mobile phones.

There is no conflict here, the only injury is an accident caused by a dropped knife; instead the drama builds compellingly around a series of conversational set pieces. The one moment when conflict might emerge is when 25-year-old vegan teetotaller Loren (a sparky Julia McDermott) gets into a millennialist froth as she battles to hold her conversational place against the drunken older men noisily passing each other potatoes. But even Loren retreats into a series of polite, well-meaning apologies.

Set in a globalised present that could be Ireland or anywhere really, Francis O’Connor’s design reflects this disjoint between the past and the present. Damask wallpaper, architraves and candles jostle with a huge modern twiggy chandelier that fizzes because of poor wiring. Garry Hynes directs with a fierce intelligence, squeezing every drop of humour, nuance and intensity from the exchanges. A sequence where Kelly (Marty Rea) plays a modern piano composition is truly hilarious.

All new plays reflect the contemporary moment, but this work also attempts to analyse it, to invite the audience to consider what they are doing being alive; that is its true originality and its ultimate homage to Joyce. A hugely satisfying new play for the thinking theatre-goer.

Until tonight.

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