It is always a challenge to adapt a well-known novel for the stage and make it accessible to an audience. As copyright to Joyce’s works lapsed this year, director Tom Neill A Portrait Of The Artist into the intimate space of the Pentametres Theatre with a cast of five (Emily Carmichael, Georgina Periam, Victoria Porter, Peter Saracen, Paul Taylor) with a lot of energy and style.

The play follows the life of Stephen Dedalus from his strict Catholic childhood to his increasing independence and ultimate abandonment of Ireland for a more spiritual existence.

The adaptation, produced by Léonie Scott-Matthews, begins with a strong and overwhelming montage of overlapping music, sound and speech, portraying a childlike perception of the world. As the play develops so does the understanding of it as a scene-to-scene collage.

Emily Carmichael’s interestingly cross-gender portrayal of the hero brings out a sensitivity and vulnerability in the character. Only she remains the same while the other cast members switch between roles, which is sometimes confusing as transformations come quickly and it is often unclear who’s who.

Neill’s staging is obviously very precise, but some trappings of physical theatre only come into play quite late and to little effect. Nonetheless, even this is symptomatic of an appropriately imaginative approach, reorganising furniture for different stage set-ups and incorporating dance and some traditional song to enhance the mood.

Unfortunately the cast struggle to keep up with the songs and the perennial issue of prop-miming is not well handled. There is a tendency to stage too much at once, and the style of performance can come off as a little uneven, overdone one minute and oddly subdued the next.

Since Stephen’s perception of the world is the locus of the play, it is sometimes hard to follow a storyline or a development of character, as the only consistent character is Stephen himself. Yet for fans of Joyce’s novel this is a great opportunity, and a visually interesting way of bringing it to the stage for the first time.

-- by Fleur Poad