Riverrun, National Theatre, review: An extraordinary adaptation of Finnegans Wake

The Shed, NT

Olwen Fouere begins by removing her shoes and walking barefoot over a pattern of salt crystals to the microphone which is propped on a sinuously curved stand.

In a rousing unearthly drone, she intones the invocation “Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas!” –  the Sanskrit word that means the “twilight of dawn”. 

And thus we are launched on Riverrun, her extraordinary sixty-minute solo piece that she's adapted from the last book of Finnegans Wake, James Joyce's punning, polyglot hubbub of a novel or, in one its characteristic coinages, “traumscrapt”. 

Embodying the voice of the River Liffey as it journeys to the sea, Fouere brings a mesmeric physical intensity to the shifting moods in Joyce's intricate serio-comic soundscape. 

At times, it's as though the inward-looking verbal torrent in Beckett's Not I has been extroverted to embrace the whole of myth and human history. 

Much of it is, of course, impenetrable but Fouere – with her incantatory precision and wiry, undulant presence – attunes you to the monologue's addictively ludic and allusive music. 

And when the river dissolves into the sea in a mid-sentence ending (which connects on a loop with novel's first words), Fouere's rapt face seems to concentrate in that suspension all the freight of joy and sorry that has gone before. 

A prodigious feat.

To 22 March; 020 7452 3000