“Himself and Nora” Showcases Sex, Love & Loss

“Himself and Nora” Showcases Sex, Love & Loss

The Off-Broadway musical “Himself and Nora” gives audiences an intimate peek inside the personal life of famed Irish writer James Joyce. This show tells the story of Joyce’s rollercoaster relationships with Nora Barnacle, religion and, well, himself. Yes, he was riddled with flaws, but he did love and was loved in return despite and in spite of them. This love wasn’t neat—nor was it always easy—so it was fascinating to find out how Joyce’s private life with Nora greatly affected and influenced his work.

James (played by Matt Bogart) and Nora (Whitney Bashor) were quite the pair. Both from Ireland, they had similar attitudes about enjoying each other in the Biblical sense, which actually posed a problem from a religious standpoint—as for the first 27 years of their relationship, the couple was unmarried and had two children. In the show a Catholic priest (Zachary Prince) was often on stage watching over Joyce’s life-choices. Judgment abounded, but not always because Joyce’s actions contradicted the Bible—sometimes he just epically under-appreciated his better half.

Without Nora there would be no James Joyce. In the show, Nora was portrayed as a firecracker of a person who described herself as the only woman Joyce was unable to push around. She’s sexually confident, unembarrassed of her desires and whip-smart. Nora grounded James to their Irish roots even though they spent a majority of their life together on continental Europe. It was her words that gave him inspiration as he wrote, and I found the moments when he asked her opinions or experiences regarding happenings in her life to be charming. Joyce may have been extremely narcissistic, but even he knew to ask a woman what it’s actually like to carry a child to term.

Great art that stems from a place of deep tragedy is a tale as old as time. When James and Nora fought, things got heated. James proclaimed throughout that he was James Joyce the Writer (“The Grand Himself”) and spent ample money on drinking even though he should have been paying bills and keeping sober for his health. Nora stood up for her family and herself, and, in my favorite song of the show (“Without a Man”), basically told James that she didn’t actually need him. James needed Nora, though, and this thought-provoking musical showed why.

As Joyce, Matt Bogart swaggers about the stage in full ownership of this character. Bogart’s singing voice is the kind I could listen to on repeat for days and is an asset to this show’s strong score. Likewise, Whitney Bashor is note-perfect as Nora. She commands her scenes and embodies Nora’s tenacity with aplomb.

“Himself and Nora” begins at the end with Joyce’s death in 1941, but it’s the scenes that follow that breathe life into a love story that goes mostly untold in European Literature classes. Though not quite scandalous by today’s standards, “Himself and Nora” still makes for a saucy trip to the theater.

“Himself and Nora” is currently running at the Minetta Lane Theatre in the West Village.

Photo courtesy Nathan Johnson

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