Duke of York's Theatre
It is pleasing to see that the West End, now usually exclusively a home to musicals and populist revivals, is still willing to take on the occasional deliberately literary production. Michael Hastings has distinguished himself in the past by writing about TS Eliot in Tom and Viv and now he focuses on the Parisian exile of possibly the two greatest Irish writers, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.
In fact, like Peter Whelan's The Herbal Bed, the protagonist in this play is a writer's daughter, Lucia Joyce, played by film star Romola Garai, who is soon to be seen on screen in Vanity Fair. This tragicomic Joycean biography, set in 1928, tracks her descent into a madness that seems to combine elements of schizophrenia and Tourette's Syndrome.
The character of Lucia is well realised with her mix of happy loving daughter, lusty lover and fantasist on the good side and terrifying fits of word-spewing on the bad. The other figures are sketchily drawn, generally with one or two characteristics representing the whole.
Dermot Crowley's James Joyce is a man with badly failing eyesight who spends most of the time like a Cubist artist or sculptor converting (verbal) normality into a difficult, oblique view of the world. His non-wife Nora Barnacle (played by Imelda Staunton) tries to keep the family together while covering embarrassments, in particular her history as an assumed prostitute on the banks of the Liffey.
Into this family that also contains Lieder-singing son Giorgio and his rich Jewish lover, comes the taciturn young figure of a man who will become another literary great, Samuel Beckett (Daniel Weyman).
The interaction between the two writers is often at the level of comic misunderstanding but there is one scene towards the end of the play where the pair debate and Joyce's love of verbal play meets Beckett's darkly nihilistic view of life head-on.
The main focus of the play is the gawky Lucia, a supposed dancer in the style of Isadora Duncan, whose loss of happiness appears to coincide with the arrival, as her father's secretary, of the young writer. Romola Garai gives an increasingly harrowing and exhausting performance as a woman who will eventually spend the last 45 years of her life in a lunatic asylum.
Under the direction of Edward Hall, and in a very effective split-level set designed by Francis O'Connor, the lives of the poor and famous are given a welcome outing on the London stage. It is greatly to be hoped that the crowds will flock in. This might persuade more producers to take more chances on new plays with challenging subject-matter.