Inspired by Finnegans Wake, the book by Irish writer James Joyce that is more like a stream-of-consciousness linguistic experiment than prose, Riverrun explores the novel’s ‘voice of the river’ section, a fragmentary collection of made-up words, phrases and sounds.
Riverrun has no characters, plot or clear vision – it’s a stimulating journey of voice, movement and maddening babble performed by Olwen Fouéré. Using a beautifully sculptured microphone for voicing the river and the myriads of life around it, she manipulates it as she pleases; she morphs her body in various ways and teases her audiences with changes of pace and attitude, as if she were a simple cell evolving by the second, always becoming something new and unrestricted.
Olwen Fouéré has incredible presence and an ear for words. In this babble of nonsense she hits every note, colours every word whether imaginary or factual and, although the audience is completely lost to whatever she’s saying, it’s quite clear she knows every intention, every tiny fraction of the life of the text. She is intriguing to watch, and the way she creates a soundscape of the sea is mesmerising. However, the text is extremely difficult to grasp – for an hour the jargon spirals into a myriad of sounds, impressions and words that make our brains ache as they desperately try to make sense of what is being said. It’s like Konstantin’s play in The Seagull, exploring new forms and ways of using text, theatrically exposing the audience to a character that’s not a character in itself but a life form – something so abstract that our factual minds can’t grasp it.
It’s an artistic experiment, and for me it is too abstract: too much of a jargon to comprehend and fully enjoy. A half-hour experience of the voice of the river would be compelling to watch, but an hour left me slightly frustrated, in want of some sort of change in either narrative or setting.
Riverrun is really a matter of taste – in the artistic world I can see it thriving, challenging the minds of critics and experimental artists. With people like me who don’t live off searching their soul for new art forms? Not so sure. One thing is non-negotiable though: Olwen Fouéré is a fantastic performer and is worth the watch, even if the jargon frustrates you and you have to force your inner factual critic to shut up.
Riverrun plays at the NT Shed until 22 March. For more information and tickets, see the NT Shed website.