Wednesday 16 October 2019

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

Role up, role up: Leopold and Molly Bloom — aka David Pearse and Janet Moran — in the
new production of Ulysses at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Photo: Frank McGrath
Role up, role up: Leopold and Molly Bloom — aka David Pearse and Janet Moran — in the new production of Ulysses at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Photo: Frank McGrath

Maggie Armstrong

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.

Dermot Bolger
Dermot Bolger

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 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."

Irish Independent

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