2004 has not been the best of years so far for James Joyce. First, there was Roddy Doyle, who as the centenary of Bloomsday approaches, saw fit to inform the world that Ulysses is overrated. And now, a new play, Calico, treats us to a insensitive look at the cruellest tragedy to befall the writer's family. Its author, Michael Hastings, seems to be cornering the market in dramas about mentally unbalanced women living in the shadow of the arch-modernists. Remember Tom and Viv, his controversial play about TS Eliot's first marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood?
The title of the latest piece refers to the material used for the straps to restrain patients in the kind of asylum where the heroine winds up. The lady in question is Joyce's schizo-phrenic daughter, Lucia, (a clumsy, sexually impulsive, but rarely affecting child-woman in Romola Garai's vivid performance). In the Paris of the late 1920s, she fell in love with Samuel Beckett, who, offering secretarial help to her father was a regular visitor to the Joyce household. Edward Hall's split-level production can't disguise the fact that the piece has the scattered focus of a drama that might have been worked up from a television script. The idea is to intertwine the larky and the lacerating, yet these two elements leech the life from one another here.
On the key issues the priorities of the piece fell topsy-turvy. In this version of events, the reluctant Beckett (Daniel Weyman) finds himself having to collude with Lucia in an embarrassing fantasy about a parallel life in which they are blissfully married with kids. The unconvincing implication is that the strain of having to pretend to being present at the birth of their child turned him into the morbidly fastidious author of Waiting for Godot.
By contrast it is evident that Joyce (Dermot Crowley) battles against accepting that his daughter is going insane. Since her communications became like a travesty of his own verbal experimentalism, conceding to the diagnostic reports would have involved allowing the inference that his art, too, bordered on psychosis. However tendentious Hastings' handling of the material in Tom and Viv, there is no denying Vivien's crucial effect on Eliot's poetry. If he had not married her, there would be no Waste Land. Calico failed to substantiate any comparable claims for Lucia.
Only the excellent Imelda Staunton, as Joyce's long-suffering wife, Nora, can suggest a thing like the requisite emotional hinterland. In Kafka's Dick, Alan Bennett demonstrated how thoughtful irreverence can give you penetrating insights into an author's imagination. But in this heavily researched, yet rather trashy docu-drama, you are reminded of Bennett's comic complaint that, in England, "gossip is the acceptable face of culture''
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