Calico is a rarity. As Sir Peter Hall pointed out on a recent Whatsonstage.com Outing (See News, 21 Nov 2003), getting any play on in the commercial West End is a struggle - which is why some 90% now originate from the safer haven of the subsidised sector - but a new, serious drama, coming straight into the West End? I’m not sure I can even remember the last one of those. So, for its chutzpah alone, this world premiere of Michael Hastings’ play should be celebrated.
It’s ambitious in other ways, too, and intriguing. Set in Paris in 1928, Calico finds the family of Irish novelist James Joyce – wife Nora Barnacle and twenty-something children Giorgio and Lucia – finally enjoying some rewards from Joyce’s literary acclaim, a degree of stability and respectability, after years of grinding poverty and nomadism. Into their midst arrives a young Samuel Beckett, then a scrawny 22-year-old lecturer who wouldn’t write Waiting for Godot for another 25 years.
On Beckett’s first visit, Joyce enlists him as an unpaid assistant, and sort of second son, and Lucia foresees their wedded bliss, an alternative world she dips in and out of as the play unfolds and her hold on “everyday, normal” life unravels. Beckett shows compassion for Lucia’s plight, indulging her Mrs Beckett fantasies, though never enough to rescue her from the asylum where she eventually winds up (and is strapped down with the calico of the title) after her ailing parents have exhausted other options.
In a programme note, Hastings writes that Joyce may well have had a sexual relationship with his daughter, which heralded her mental decline. He hints at this in the narrative, too – “only the lowest of the low would do that”, Joyce says on the subject of incest while poring over notes for what was to become his mammoth Finnegan’s Wake - but, while there’s ample evidence of a familial preoccupation with sex, you never get a real sense that such a crime was committed here.
What you do get a sense of in Edward Hall’s production – and a wonderful sense at that – is an eccentric and bustling household of artistic spirits. A place where opera is sung, ‘daft’ wordplay debated, affairs conducted, and where, yes, Samuel Beckett is James Joyce’s PA and F Scott Fitzgerald arrives uninvited to heave himself from the balcony window out of respect. A place where, despite misunderstandings and ignorance, there’s a lot of love.
The wistfully bohemian atmosphere is enhanced by Francis O'Connor’s elegant set – two tiers of sliding platforms and panels that open up the Joyce home beautifully – and Mick Sands’ piano accompaniment (performed by Helen Washington). There are also some very fine performances, particularly from a feisty Imelda Staunton as Nora, a thoughtful Dermot Crowley as Joyce, taking refuge in his encroaching blindness, and, in her stage debut, a remarkable Romola Garai as the troubled but endearing Lucia.