Olwen Fouere had never read James Joyce's epic novel, Finnegan's Wake,
before she adapted it for riverrun, her Dublin Theatre Festival hit
which arrives at the Traverse Theatre for an Edinburgh Festival Fringe
run next week. Being where she's from, the maverick Irish actress and
director had of course dipped into what is often regarded as an
impenetrable text over the years. Only when she read the last page of
the book out loud to celebrate the Joyce-based Bloomsday festival while
on holiday with friends, however, did she have any notion to transform
it into a piece of theatre.
“It was really one of those moments,” she says now, “that the tongues
of fire descended, and I felt this vibration around the room, and it
had this extraordinary communicative effect. I knew then that this
would be my next piece, the voice of the river. I started from the idea
that she from dissolved into the ocean, and worked backwards from
At one point Fouere planned to only perform the last ten pages of the
book, but then became fascinated by the journey of the river itself.
“It's said now that water can hold memory, which I think is a wonderful
idea,” she says. “It's all a little bit on the borders of science, but
they've done these experiments where they play these sounds in water,
and there's this idea that water can contain history, which I think is
Born on the west coast of Ireland to Breton parents, Fouere has
developed a fascinating body of work since she first moved into acting
“The 1970s in Ireland were a very low period,” she reflects, “and art
was the one thing that was like a doorway that opened up all sorts of
possibilities. I was drawn to art and medicine, and studied visual art
for a while, though not formally. When I started going to the theatre,
I thought I might go into it as a designer, but then ended up becoming
“One of the most beautiful things about theatre is its ephemerality. As
a visual artist I don't think I would ever have been happy with what I
was creating. It would never be finished, whereas with theatre you have
to have the humility to accept that you've got as far as you can before
you let the audience in, and then you can continue it together, but
it's never complete.”
While she has acted with all of Ireland's major theatre companies,
including the Abbey and the Gate, as well as the Royal National Theatre
in the UK, Fouere has carved out a canon of her own work that fuses
image, text and sound. Having been exposed early on to work by the
likes of Robert Wilson, The Living Theatre, visiting avant-garde Polish
companies and the young Laurie Anderson, Fouere developed a
cross-disciplinary approach that began with Operating Theatre, the
company she co-founded with composer Roger Doyle in 1980. Over the
twenty-eight years of the company's existence, Fouere created and
performed in stage and installation based work drawn from sources such
as Antonin Artaud and Sebastian Barry.
Running parallel with this, Fouere took the title role in Steven
Berkoff's take on Oscar Wilde's Salome in 1988, and worked extensively
with directors Michael Bogdanov and Patrick Mason. For Mason she
appeared in Tom Murphy's The Wake at Edinburgh International Festival,
where she also worked for Calixto Bieito in Jo Clifford's version of
Calderon de la Barca's Life Is A Dream. Fouere toured the world in Mark
O'Rowe's play, Terminus, and has just finished a science-fiction film
set for release next year.
“I've always had two streams to my work,” she says, “and that's because
I started in the theatre without really knowing at the start of the
journey I was on which way to go. Then I started to be offered a lot of
mainstream work, and thought I would have to decide, but I've been
really lucky being able to straddle both streams, because they inform
each other and nourish each other. It's about learning to balance
things, but I feel now that those two worlds are coming together a lot
Fouere's latest platform is TheEmergencyRoom, which, as well as being
the logical step on from Operating Theatre, also implies a sense of
urgency about creating a space for what she defines as “work needing
immediate attention. It's work that I felt needs to be done, even if it
doesn't necessarily have any form of support system other than what I
can give it.”
This is certainly the case with riverrun, in which life and art come
together as one.
“I've always had an exploratory nature,” says Fouere, “which is tied up
with nature itself and spirituality, so I suppose what I do is kind of
a search, but it's also a no choice kind of search. Art is kind of like
love, a love you believe in, and which kind of pulls you towards it,
and it's up to you whether you follow it or not. It's more than just a
want. It's like with riverrun. It's saying for us to wake up, and in
that way I hope audiences leave the theatre with a sensation that they
can't put aside.”
riverrun, Traverse Theatre, July 29-Aug 24, various times.
Olwen Fouere - A life in performance.
Fouere was born on the west coast of Ireland to Breton parents.
After being drawn to both the visual arts and the stage, she began
acting in 1976.
In 1980, Fouere co-founded Operating Theatre with composer Roger Doyle.
Fouere went on to work with the Abbey, the Gate, the Royal National
Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Fouere created the title role in Steven Berkoff's version of Salome,
was directed by Tom Murphy in his play, Bailegangaire, and appeared in
plays by Brian Friel, Marina Carr, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
Works with Operating Theatre include The Diamond Body (1984-1987), The
Pentagonal Dream (1986), Angel/Babel (1999) and Here Lies (2005-2007).
Fouere has won numerous best actress awards, has contributed to several
theatre journals, has acted opposite Sean Penn on film and appeared on
television in Ballykissangel.
A documentary film, Theatre in the Flesh, charted a year in Fouere's
life, and was shown on RTE in 2005.
In 2011, Fouere toured the world with the Abbey Theatre in two plays
written and directed by Mark O' Rowe, Terminus and The Broken Heart.
Other recent stage credits include Gerald Barry's opera of The
Importance of Being earnest, Maria de la Buenos Aires at Cork Opera
House, The Rite of Spring and Petrushka with Fabulous Beast Dance
Theatre at Sadler's Wells and Fouere's own translation of Laurent
Garde's Sodome, my love in a co-production between Rough Magic and
Fouere's own TheEmergencyRoom.
riverrun was first seen at Galway Arts Festival, who are co-producers
of the show with Cusack Projects Limited and TheEmergencyRoom.
The Herald, July 25th 2014