Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Monday 20 January 2020

Theatre: The Cyclops is alive and well and on stage

  • Cyclops, New Theatre Dublin
  • I Am a Bird Now, Theatre Upstairs, Eden Quay, Dublin
Simon Toal, Graeme Coughlan Michael O'Kelly and Paul Kealyn star in Cyclops. Photo: Al Craig
Simon Toal, Graeme Coughlan Michael O'Kelly and Paul Kealyn star in Cyclops. Photo: Al Craig
Ross Gaynor in 'I Am A Bird Now' at Theatre Upstairs

Emer O'Kelly

A cheery, hour-long piece of Joyceana charms and impresses.

It's interesting that two of the early 20th century giants of Irish literature/theatre, trotted out in a glow of flag-waving nationalism, were both virulently opposed to it. Not just armed nationalism, but nationalism as the isolationist, reactionary philosophy. They are, of course, James Joyce and Sean O'Casey (Shaw wasn't too keen on it either). Clemenceau, the great French liberal thinker, summed it up: "A patriot loves his country; a nationalist hates all others."

Joyce encapsulated that thinking in the Cyclops chapter of Ulysses, where Homer's one-eyed monster Polyphemus is transposed into The Citizen, spewing bile against England with a few side-swipes at the French and others along the way, while wildly claiming every achievement throughout history for the Irish. Sitting in Barney Kiernan's pub and building to an anti-Semitic rant against poor cuckolded lonely Bloom, The Citizen sees himself in the centre of a country that is the centre of the world.

And Joyce got him right: he's still around - we meet him daily, in and out of the Dail (and at funerals which are little different from Paddy Dignam's in the immortal book) in our streets and on our farms. The trouble is, he doesn't recognise himself.

Peter Reid, of AC Productions, has adapted (loosely, and with a lot of editing down, which he freely admits to) the Cyclops chapter for a one-hour play (it will run through Bloomsday). The spirit comes shining through, with a huge contribution from Paul Kealyn as The Citizen, a lumbering ignoramus composed of equal parts of spite, bullying, and mindless racism.

That creates a slight problem: Kealyn towers in what should be an ensemble piece. In particular, Stephen Dalton seems somehow to remain outside the character of Bloom, and never manages to make his distracted misery convincing as he tries to defend his people and their history, while his tormented mind is concentrating on images of his Molly in the arms of Blazes Boylan (Reid incorporates a voiceover of a section of the Molly soliloquy, voiced by Charlene Gleeson).

Overall, though, the sense of time and place are triumphant, with Simon Toal as The Narrator, John Smyth as Bob Doran (and as Cunningham, when he finally appears), Graeme Coughlan as Joe Haines, and Michael O'Kelly as the Barman. Reid's direction is a combination of imagination and fidelity to his subject's soul. He is also responsible for the excellent design lit by Nell Conneally. Costumes are by Alex Cusack.

Altogether, the production is an uplifting and cheering piece of Joyceana; and if scholarly purists are tempted to nit-pick, they shouldn't.


Ross Gaynor in 'I Am A Bird Now' at Theatre Upstairs

There is real horror in Ross Gaynor's I Am a Bird Now, not least because of its unintended prescience. The narrator/character is a man in his thirties, born and reared in Dublin, and working as a senior nurse in London. And then 7/7 happens. Without time to think or feel the pain, he and his colleagues throw the amputated limbs of the victims into a sluice room without even cleaning them. And a few days later, the stinking heap is incinerated.

It is an eerie coincidence that the play had its premiere in the week of the London Bridge massacre, and only days after the Manchester outrage, recalling as it does with graphic horror that day in 2005 when terror also visited the streets of London.

Gaynor performs his play himself and the performance is as sickeningly impressive as the writing.

The terror references are only the beginning, however. The young man is gay (probably) and he is beaten up and has his face slashed on a night out as "punishment" for his peacocking sense of fashion. He and his lover, also a nurse, move to Brighton, where he attempts to fulfil what he sees as his destiny: to look after Alec. Because, after all, his own father did that for his family; it's the male role and duty. But they part, and the young man finally cracks.

He no longer knows what gender is, having been told of what seem like insurmountable odds in having re-alignment surgery.

This play - at Theatre Upstairs on Eden Quay - is not for the faint-hearted: descriptions of the man's "solution" to his problem are hard to take. But it is a truly marvellous piece of writing (although a little over-written), and the performance, under Karl Shiels' direction, is splendidly well-paced and perfectly controlled. It is an in-house production in association with The Breadcrumb Trail.

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