A new play in London's West End takes a fictional look at an episode in the lives of two of the 20th century's greatest writers. When the young Irishman Samuel Beckett made the pilgrimage to the Paris apartment of his countryman James Joyce and his family in the late Twenties, the fledgling writer was soon adopted as Joyce's unofficial secretary. In the play, Joyce's unbalanced but adored daughter, Lucia, becomes obsessed with Beckett and is soon insisting that he has promised to marry her. Confronted by Joyce, Beckett denies it. He is shown the door, and the rift between the two men never heals.
Calico, by Michael Hastings, also takes a creative look at Joyce's life and his household, in order to explore themes of a family in crisis and love that borders on insanity. Hastings, who also wrote Tom and Viv, which shed new light on the life of the poet T S Eliot and his wife, Vivian, winning him an Oscar nomination for best screenplay for the film adaptation, has chosen to put the spotlight on a literary superstar again.
"This can only be doubly interesting for me as an actor," explains Dermot Crowley, who is Joyce in the play. "It's not just a question of feeling the part, and sticking on a linen suit and stripped shirt, because in this case, the character, is a real person, but also incredibly famous," says the actor "There is a never-ending interest in him and his family, who then meet up with Samuel Beckett, another towering genius."
But although Crowley says that "you only have to look at Joyce's artistic manifesto in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which he clearly states that he is going to make his life his art, to see what an extraordinary person he was," playing a genius isn't easy.
Besides researching books on this subject (he has just finished reading Richard Ellman's definitive biography), Crowley, now in his fourth week of rehearsals, is growing a moustache, thereby hoping "to catch the essence of a man". It helps that he has previously played Richard Rowan in Joyce's only play, Exiles, at the Bristol Old Vic in the Eighties.
Directed by Edward Hall, Calico also stars Imelda Staunton as Nora Barnacle, Joyce's wife. Staunton has been working on the Untitiled 2003 Mike Leigh project and was recently seen in Stephen Fry's Bright Young Things. Her theatre work includes Guys and Dolls for which she won an Olivier nomination, and A Chorus of Disapproval and The Corn is Green.
Romola Garai makes her West End debut as the unbalanced Lucia, while Daniel Weyman, who made his stage debut in 2002 in Michael Grandage's The Vortex, plays Beckett.
"The other day we took a break from rehearsals and ate a cake that spelt out '122 years old' [Joyce was born on 2 February 1882]. It may sound silly," says Crowley, "but we sang happy birthday to him in this rehearsal room in Stockwell, because certainly for us, he is still very much alive."
'Calico', Duke of York's Theatre, London WC2 (0870 0606623) opens on Friday
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