Edna O’Brien’s new play tells the story of James Joyce through his women – and it’s a triumph

Stephen Hogan as James Joyce in Joyce's Women - Ros Kavanagh
Stephen Hogan as James Joyce in Joyce's Women - Ros Kavanagh

The idea behind this new play by the great Irish writer Edna O’Brien – namely, to consider, in Ulysses’s centenary year, the illustrious and tempestuous life of James Joyce through the biographies of the women who were closest to him – is a fascinating one. The titular figures of Joyce’s Women include: his offended Catholic mother May Murray Joyce; his devoted wife Nora Joyce (née Barnacle); and his brilliant, troubled daughter Lucia.

From the outset – when we see the author of Ulysses being roundly denounced for his irreligiousness and “the pride of intellect” by his stern and long-suffering mother – it is clear that director Conall Morrison has fashioned a stage production in the style of the artistic modernism of which Joyce was one of the greatest exponents.

The geometrical, mirrored set conjures up the spirit of modernism - Ros Kavanagh
The geometrical, mirrored set conjures up the spirit of modernism - Ros Kavanagh

The action is framed by geometric metal structures, including mirrors and platforms. Set designer Sabine Dargent evokes the very uncertainties and sense of fracture that are expressed so powerfully in Joyce’s writing. The stage is populated only with such naturalistic props as are required to tell the story.

We find Nora (Bríd Ní Neachtain, moving between injured sensitivity and granite-surfaced self-protection) talking of the early days of her lifelong love affair with the great novelist and poet (who is played with perfectly pitched self-regard by Stephen Hogan). The romance blossomed, Nora tells her housemaid, despite the fact that she was unable to read Joyce’s books (“too highfalutin”).

The play then turns towards Joyce’s obsession with his daughter Lucia, a dancer who was bedevilled by mental crises. We see the young woman as her reluctant father turns her over to the none-too-tender mercies of a mental institution. Lucia describes one of her dance performances as “subtle and barbaric”. It is a term that could apply equally to the resonating and sympathetic performance given by Genevieve Hulme Beaman, the actress playing her.

Genevieve Hulme Beaman as Lucia Joyce - Ros Kavanagh
Genevieve Hulme Beaman as Lucia Joyce - Ros Kavanagh

The decision to insert a short film depicting the mental asylum episode into the play – thereby transforming Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey in Dublin, into a cinema – is a disappointing one. It is anti-theatrical, not only in its apparent lack of faith in live drama’s ability to convey the events, but also in its gratuitous breaching of the play’s momentum.

This odd misjudgement notwithstanding, the production bristles with emotional intelligence and perfectly attuned music and song (often courtesy of Bill Murphy). Ultimately, Morrison’s production is a moving and fitting tribute, both to the genius of Joyce and to the lives of the women in his life.

Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until October 15. Tickets: + 353 1 677 8899; dublintheatrefestival.ie