If you’ve ever had a go at reading In Search of Lost Time, you’ll know there are several passages that are, indisputably, unreadable. Proust’s six-volume disquisition on the fallibility of memory, the nature of desire, and the possibility of truly knowing another person (all perfectly respectable, eternally applicable themes), is also a wide-ranging satire on the salon culture of high society Paris at the turn of the century. So, the reader must wade through never-ending chapters focused on a single afternoon’s conversation covering the gestures and intonations of all participants in painstaking detail.
However, the pay-off for suffering through these dense social portraits is gracious, spacious, elegant, and deft summations of the human condition, sometimes only two or three lines, sometimes a whole paragraph or a page that encapsulate a stunning truth. Watching ‘Souvenir’ is a little like being treated to all of the best, most insightful bits from the novel, without the drudgery in between. This is catnip to our soundbite-hungry generation, fixated on pithy quotations that sum the mystery of life up in a single, handy-dandy observation.
The one-man show’s writer and actor Bush Moukarzel delivers these choice cuts from Proust’s unwieldy tome in a manner both measured and affecting, giving the words themselves space to breathe. There is also stuff lifted from other writers (Theodor Adorno, Charlie Kauffman, Walter Benjamin), all of whom are listed unabashedly in a projected text that acts as an introduction to the show. Moukarzel foregrounds his ‘borrowings’ from others throughout the performance as a key gag which, along with a host of in-jokes aimed at the Dublin theatre-going crowd, consistently undercuts the pathos of many of Proust’s sentiments. However, this is a calculated technique that ultimately serves to emphasise their weight.
Moukarzel makes the narrative contemporary by splicing current scenes, references and language with Proust’s original text; the humour is wry and apt, eliciting many knowing chuckles from the audience. Madeleine cakes, the famously-referenced sensory keys to memory from the original text, are obliquely likened to a widely-consumed 21st century contraband item with the words ‘I’ll just have a half.’
Moukarzel skits about the stage, interacting with the audience and pulling them into the action, ripping the fourth wall into tiny fragments. The set is littered with scattered pages and cardboard boxes, the former supposedly the pages of Proust’s text itself, which have been disassembled at the opening of the show. Consequently, Moukarzel must reassemble the storyline from scratch with the help of the audience. It’s a live enactment of one of the key tenets of In Search of Lost Time – the notion that memory is unreliable and that we recreate it at each moment.
All of this undercutting of truth and warping of timelines culminates in one of the most ambitious interactive moves of the show, a group creation of a memory. Does it come off? Well, not really, but that’s beside the point. Souvenir is a whimsically presented litany of memorable ‘quotes that say big things’, tempered with self-deprecating humour that mocks the actor’s attempts to make a show while he is doing so, in front of an audience. At no point does it resolve into clarity, but that’s ok too, considering the final lines of the play make a plea for admitting ignorance and embracing creative exploration.
Early on in the piece, after acting out an (adapted) scene from the book with the help of an audience member, Moukarzel compliments his helper’s performance before saying: “I wasn’t very good as me, but I’ll work on that.” It’s in keeping with the wry tone of the work, but it’s also a summation of its key concern: the necessity of working on being the person we think we are and should be, in light of what we (probably inaccurately) think we have been up until that point.
Words: Rachel Donnelly