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Is what we think about the controversial book Lolita all wrong?

A new piece in the Dublin Dance Festival aims to explore this controversial yet much-feted book.

Source: Junk Ensemble/Vimeo

EVEN IF YOU haven’t read the book Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, you’re likely to be familiar with the story: an older man becomes obsessed with a teenage temptress.

But is that the real story? And what happens when that teenager grows up to become a woman?

Those are the questions posed by the show Dolores, created by the twin duo behind Junk Ensemble, which will performed as part of the Dublin Dance Festival in May.

Russian-American author Nabokov wrote Lolita in 1955. Initially published by Olympia Press (which also published the late JP Donleavy’s book The Ginger Man), the book tells the story of literary professor Humbert Humbert, the narrator, and his relationship with the teenage Dolores Haze, aka Lolita.

Though described as an ‘erotic novel’ by some, in the decades since the book was published its topic has gradually grown more and more controversial. It frequently appears in lists of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, and has been adapted for stage and screen (notably by one Stanley Kubrick).

For Jessica and Megan Kennedy (aka Junk Ensemble), creating their new work Dolores was a chance for them to explore this book, which they adore but freely admit has many difficult elements to it.

“I read it when I was 17 and I was entirely seduced by the language and the narrator, Hubert, and I’m a massive fan of Nabokov and Russian literature,” Jessica tells TheJournal.ie.

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She was particularly drawn to how Nabokov – who was a synaesthesiac – used colour and language in his ”evocative descriptions”. “He writes in colour almost, or words associated with colour,” she says.

As we talk, her sister Megan has her hand on her own copy of the book – a well-thumbed annotated version of Lolita.

“So much of the abuse and trauma is disguised very well in the language,” says Jessica of how Dolores is treated in the novel. “It is there but it’s quite well veiled. And I think that’s also Nabokov’s intention, that he’s showing us, he’s telling us about the abuse but we can choose to ignore it.”

Dolores’s story

In the show Dolores, the women have broken her story into three parts: the abused and neglected child; the superficial child “who is addicted to consumerism and candy and the American dream”; and then the older Dolores, or the Dolores who lived and who is full of “fire, revenge, retribution”.

Performance artist Amanda Coogan plays the older Dolores (who in the book does not exist), with Mikel Murfi playing both Humbert Humbert and his nemesis Quilty.

The show was inspired by the dearth of women writing about Lolita and her life. “We felt that we weren’t really getting Lolita’s voice and so that led us to that idea, this production,” says Jessica. “That’s Lolita’s real name, that’s her real life, and that’s who she’s meant to be and she’s distorted and made into lots of different figures throughout the book. It’s a story told by a man and it’s written by a man so we’re trying to show, we’re trying to feel and we’re trying to find her story and her different sides.”

Through Dolores’s story, they want to explore “what it’s like to be a woman and also what it’s like to be a girl – so it’s not just Lolita”. Instead, the story has resonances beyond Nabokov’s 1950s world, and into Ireland today.

junk headshot large 2015 Jessica and Megan Kennedy

Layers of story

Nabokov “expects people to read his novel eight times”, says Megan. And the multiple readings are supposed to show the reader how distinct the author is from his narrator.

“He shows throughout the novel that he is quite separate to him but the way he describes it in first hand, a lot of people have been confused by that,” says Megan. “And so then we were doing a lot of research about the criticism and a lot of male critics, there are very few female critics that talk about the writing and talk about Lolita as Dolores.”

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The sexual-yet-innocent depiction of Lolita is troubling for people who know about the book. And it’s this that the piece also explores.

“You really don’t see the neglected or orphaned, dirty traumatised child, in the novel you hear of it briefly in moments where it just hits you: when Humbert Humbert writes that Lolita falls asleep sobbing every night when she thinks Humbert Humbert has fallen asleep. So you just have these glimmers of realisations of a horror that’s happening to her,” says Jessica.

Adds Megan: “But it’s really just from Humbert Humbert’s side, so that’s what we’re investigating these tiny glimpses – he doesn’t want his darling to have a voice, he suppresses it, he tries to erase her history, he tries to erase her past – she’s an orphan. So we’re looking at the fact she’s a human being, she’s someone who thinks and feels and believes… so we’re trying to explore what she may say, what she would say if she were still alive.”

Sensory experience

The event will take place in Dublin’s Chocolate Factory, but it won’t be a traditional show – instead, there will be about four or five performance spaces, which all reflect a location in the book.

The audience will move through the space, and will experience what happens in a sensory way. They can expect sounds and smells to evoke what’s going on.

“It’s an immersive experience,” says Megan. “And because the audience is quite small, it’ll be even more special.”

Is the book misunderstood?

“I think it’s very divided. I think there’s a way of looking at the novel as a masterpiece, but I also think there are flaws to it and these are well warranted,” says Jessica. “So I wouldn’t say it’s misunderstood, it’s certainly understood by different people and their different experiences or different motivations.”

Adds Megan: “I feel that [Lolita is] misunderstood and in a lot of places misrepresented – in terms of how she’s been represented in the plays or in pop songs, she comes across as precocious seductress, a young nymphet who knows what she’s getting into and knows how to turn a man into something that she can get money from or manipulate.”

We believe it’s the opposite – that she was doing what she was doing to survive, she was trying to survive, she had no one else to count on and if she looked to run away that she’d have nothing.

Dolores takes place at the Chocolate Factory, Tuesday 8 – Sunday 13 May. Tuesday 8 -Sunday 13 May, 7.30pm; matinee: Thursday 10 May, 1pm; Saturday 12pm and Sunday 13 May, 3pm. Book online or find out more about these performances and Dublin Dance Festival at www.dublindancefestival.ie 

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