Set­ting the stage for Ulysses

While the daunt­ing Joyce clas­sic is on the must-read list for many, few ever do. But this play­ful take cap­tures the essence of the novel, its stars tell Mag­gie Arm­strong

Irish Independent - - Culture & Features -

The stage is a black and white chess­board that looks ready to slide across. In the cen­tre is a big brass bed tum­bling with mussed pink cov­ers.

We are stand­ing in the empty Abbey au­di­to­rium over­look­ing the main stage where Der­mot Bol­ger’s adap­ta­tion of Ulysses is about to re­turn for the next six weeks — its sec­ond sum­mer in a row, ap­par­ently back by pop­u­lar de­mand.

The show, di­rected by Gra­ham McLaren, the the­atre’s co-di­rec­tor, is de­scribed by this pa­per’s the­atre critic Katy Hayes as a “sum­mer crowd-pleaser”.

Pop­u­lar? Crowd pleaser? Are we talk­ing about the same Ulysses,

James Joyce’s 18-part, 700-page Mod­ernist novel in­spired by Homer’s epic? Ulysses, the novel so many try but fail mis­er­ably to read?

The very one. Bol­ger first adapted Joyce’s frag­men­tary mas­ter­piece in 1994, af­fec­tion­ately call­ing it A

Dublin Bloom. Writ­ing about this new, im­proved script, called sim­ply

Ulysses in homage, the writer marked out as his ideal au­di­ence “peo­ple who al­ways wanted to read the book but felt in­tim­i­dated”. By which he meant ev­ery­one.

It is tech week. In the bar above the stage, two ac­tors are eat­ing sand­wiches. They are Janet Mo­ran and David Pearse, pre­par­ing once more to in­habit Molly and Leopold Bloom. They are un­der time pres­sure, and both a lit­tle bit ner­vous.

Both artistes grow an­i­mated, how­ever, when they dis­cuss the par­tic­u­lars of this play­ful take on Ulysses.

There is a multi-role-play­ing en­sem­ble of eight, clown­ing, cabaret, “hu­manette” pup­pets, a touch of op­eretta, a short ra­dio play and plenty of au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion — 100 mem­bers of the au­di­ence will sit on stage with the ac­tors.

Most con­tro­ver­sially for Joycean purists, Molly Bloom’s in­ter­nal mono­logue is de­liv­ered through­out from that un­made bed, form­ing the spine of the play in­stead of the end­ing as in the book.

Bol­ger (right) said that he took as his start­ing point a com­plaint of Nora Bar­na­cle that Joyce had kept her up at night when he was writ­ing Ulysses be­cause he was laugh­ing so hard.

The cast­ing had to live up to this vi­sion, with Pearse and Mo­ran, two very witty per­form­ers, tak­ing the star­ring roles (not their first ro­mance, hav­ing played a quar­relling cou­ple in RTÉ’s Trivia).

Leopold Bloom is the fic­tional Dublin Jew with his very own fes­ti­val. He is an ad­ver­tise­ment agent who reads big books and eats the in­ner or­gans of beasts and fowls. Who is he, aside from lit­er­a­ture’s most fa­mous cuck­old?

“He’s a man on a jour­ney and he’s got ob­sta­cles to over­come,” says Pearse. “He’s an ob­server. He’s a good man. He’s not a su­per­hero. He’s just a nor­mal hero.”

Molly Bloom’s rib­ald and ro­man­tic speech is widely quoted to­day, with the part­ing line “Yes I said yes I will yes” be­com­ing the bat­tle-cry for cam­paign­ers dur­ing the abor­tion ref­er­en­dum. What makes her so re­lat­able?

For Mo­ran, we re­late be­cause we see all as­pects of her in a com­plete, life-sized por­trait. “She wasn’t a fe­male char­ac­ter in lit­er­a­ture that was an ad­den­dum to a man. The idea that you could be in­side a woman’s head and see her warts and all is what is shock­ing and rad­i­cal.”

But for these two ac­tors, Ulysses is most of all a love story, with an em­bat­tled mar­ried cou­ple at its cen­tre.

“It’s a fan­tas­tic love story,” says Pearse. “It’s ex­tremely touch­ing and very hu­man.”

“They are at a place where there is no in­ti­macy,” says Mo­ran. She be­lieves there is a “mis­con­cep­tion” about Molly

Bloom, so reg­u­larly in­ter­preted across mu­sic, film and the­atre as a fleshy diva. “Peo­ple al­ways seem to fo­cus on the sex­ual bits. There seems to be an idea about the very end be­ing about her or­gasm.”

“The thing I con­sciously didn’t want to do was play the sex­ual el­e­ment. She’s also talk­ing about her dead child, the lack of in­ti­macy in her mar­riage, her bod­ily func­tions. The last speech, it moves me ev­ery time. It’s about re­mem­ber­ing love.” Pearse, sim­i­larly, has been think­ing about the “heart­break” of Leopold Bloom as he goes for his fa­mous walk on June 16, 1904. “There is the loss he has ex­pe­ri­enced of his son Rudy, and the loss of his re­la­tion­ship with his wife, who is about to have a re­la­tion­ship with an­other man. He ac­cepts that, he va­cates the area to fa­cil­i­tate that. He knows that Blazes Boy­lan can of­fer her a phys­i­cal at­ten­tion that he isn’t ca­pa­ble of.”

Ulysses is writ­ten in many shift­ing styles across many lit­er­ary forms. Stream of con­scious­ness, quest nar­ra­tive, bawdy com­edy, po­lit­i­cal satire, so­cial com­men­tary. It is, crit­ics have ar­gued, com­pletely un­stage­able.

“We’re not stag­ing Ulysses, we’re not stag­ing a novel,” coun­ters Pearse. “We are stag­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion of Der­mot’s play of Ulysses. It’s a trun­cated ver­sion. It’s very much the spirit and the essence of the novel.

“It of­fers peo­ple an in­sight into the novel and hope­fully in­spires peo­ple to have a go at read­ing it them­selves. They may or may not fin­ish the book, not that many peo­ple have.”

Just for the record, the ac­tors haven’t fin­ished Ulysses ei­ther. They haven’t re­ally read it.

“I did try,” says Mo­ran. “I got about five or six chap­ters in.”

“I haven’t read it,” says Pearse. “I’ve at­tempted to, like most peo­ple. Ap­par­ently it’s very good.”

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