Sunday 16 December 2018

Novel take on Joyce classic

Full Bloom: Donal Gallery and David Pearse in Ulysses. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Full Bloom: Donal Gallery and David Pearse in Ulysses. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Katy Hayes

James Joyce's Ulysses, published in 1922, is a touchstone of both modern Irish fiction and international modernism. It is a daunting task to reformat it for the stage and adaptor Dermot Bolger has done a fine job in distilling the essence of this work into a two-hour stage show. Graham McLaren, one of the Abbey's new co-directors, puts on a dazzling directorial display full of ingenuity and humour.

The key decision in the reshaping of the work is to place Molly Bloom in the centre of the stage and place her soliloquy at the centre of the script. Molly's soliloquy, which concludes the novel, is threaded throughout the show. In a corset and white linen frills, she speaks from a tousled bed. Her material functions as a commentary on elements of the story of her husband Leopold Bloom and his young friend Stephen Dedalus as they meander about Dublin for the day.

Janet Moran is excellent as Molly, conveying a gentle sensuousness and creating a soft centre for the whole show. Donal Gallery captures Dedalus's cocky intellectualism with great charm. Garrett Lombard is a terrific brass-neck showman as Blazes Boylan, Molly's lover. But the runaway star of the show is David Pearse as Leopold Bloom. Pearse is one of Ireland's best comic actors, but he brings a heroic depth to the Jewish Bloom that is highly effective. The heroism is of course there in Joyce's novel, but it is substantially pumped up by Pearse.

The show is very funny, with lots of inventive use of puppetry and music. Tremendous laughs are wrung from all the cameos, especially the prostitutes in the 'Nighttown' chapter; the bawdy aspects of the novel are nicely indulged. One of the most effective aspects of this stage version is the conjuring of ghosts: Dedalus's dead mother and Molly and Leopold's son Rudy, who died in infancy, are represented by haunting puppets. The puppets, creations of Gavin Glover, provide emotional anchorage among all the laughs. Puppets also embody citizens and prostitutes to a more humorous effect.

McLaren also creates the set design. It is a typical Dublin bar, with mahogany counter and black-and-white tiled floor. The Abbey auditorium is reshaped, with seating at the rear of the stage, and some audience members are placed at bar tables on the stage. Some action takes place in the auditorium and there is plenty of giddy energy about. Niamh Lunny's finely judged costumes, full of variety and detail, also make a major contribution to the show.

This is a highly inventive stage version of Joyce's novel, even if the whole experience doesn't feel particularly fresh. Ulysses is very familiar. Even to those who haven't read the book, much of the material has entered the culture via excerpts presented on street corners in Edwardian dress at Bloomsday events and other cultural moments. So, while enjoyable, overall the show doesn't feel like it is breaking new ground.


Gaiety, Dublin Oct 25 – Nov 11

This Ross O’Carroll-Kelly one-man show brings you right up to date with everyone’s favourite southsider. Written by Paul Howard, starring Rory Nolan and directed by Jimmy Fay.


Viking, Clontarf Oct 23  – Nov 11

Christian O’Reilly’s fine two-hander from 2002 gets another revival, this time from Rise Productions. A couple from different worlds are bound together by an unplanned pregnancy.


Peacock, Dublin Oct 25 – Nov 4

Première of a new play by Scottish writer Frances Poet, based on Andromaque by Jean Racine. Two brides and one dead groom. Directed by Graham McLaren. Stars Lucianne McEvoy and Julie Rodgers.

Online world gets onstage treatment

Writer Stacey Gregg likes to lock antlers with the contemporary moment. Her output tingles with excitement for the now: for the tech world and its dilemmas, for the human condition in its current evolution.

We go into the Abbey building via an outside fire exit and are led down a long dull corridor with concrete walls. The Peacock space is entered via a side door. It feels like a secret nightclub; loud music, neon, green lasers. Plenty of atmosphere.

The play, a riff on Franz Kafka's The Trial, opens with Josephine in her pyjamas. It is her birthday and a man in her kitchen charges her with an unspecified crime on behalf of some authority. Then he eats her breakfast. Everything about her is known by the authorities from her online history, even down to cranky consumer behaviour at a certain time of the month.

We get some sense of a radical past in a protest which turns violent. We never fully understand the charges she is facing, but Josephine defends herself in a rousing speech which spawns hashtags and memes, and gets someone fired.

Director Caitríona McLaughlin creates a fluid, interactive space, replicating the online experience in so far as it can be done in a theatre. Kate Moylan's brilliant design incorporates emoticon helium balloons on one scaffold, and a neon porn-girl on another. The stage is raised, with a clear perspex screen cutting it in half diagonally. The audience is seated on all sides, with some standing.

Orla Fitzgerald plays Josephine K, with a bewildered realism. Carl Kennedy, billed as the Algorithm/Sound Designer, is best known as a sound designer. He plays several parts, including the guard in the opening scene, and an old flame. He maintains a cheery geekiness throughout, but could've provided more variety.

Kafka's The Trial is like a warning from the past about how an individual can collude in their own surveillance. Gregg has identified the chilling parallels in the current moment. This is a clever, modern, funny play and well worth a look. My one complaint is that at 50 minutes, it feels a bit short.

Katy Hayes

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