'You won't find any copies of Ulysses lying around the rehearsal room'
Irish author Dermot Bolger and Abbey co-director and Scotsman Graham McLaren have teamed up to bring Joyce's modernist classic to the stage. It's all part of an ambition to put the national back into our national theatre, they tell Andrew Lynch
Dermot Bolger and Graham McLaren both got off to a bad start with Ulysses. As a teenage schoolboy in Finglas, Bolger was hoping to find "a dirty book" and ended up sadly disappointed. As a student actor in Glasgow, McLaren bought a copy to impress his Irish girlfriend (now his wife), but "just could not get off the ground with it".
Today, the situation is very different. We are sitting in a rehearsal room at the Abbey, where McLaren is preparing to direct Bolger's adaptation of Ulysses as part of this year's Dublin Theatre Festival. Mark Twain once said a classic is "something everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to actually read" - but the two men firmly believe they can distil James Joyce's modernist masterpiece about one day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom into a cracking night out.
"My job is to put on plays people genuinely want to see, not ones they think they ought to see," McLaren says, a reference to his regular duties as the Abbey's co-director (with Welshman Neil Murray). "So I'm delighted to report that this is already selling a huge amount of tickets."
Bolger and McLaren make for an interesting contrast. The Irishman, who has been turning out novels, plays and poems since the late 1970s, speaks with a boyish enthusiasm and is clearly thrilled about finally seeing his work on the national theatre's main stage. "Sometimes you need to let your dreams go before they come true," he muses. "It's like Leonard Cohen says - you just have to live long enough."
The Scotsman is more laconic at first, with a mischievous sense of humour. When talking about his overall vision for the Abbey itself, however, he becomes almost evangelical.
"We have just one agenda, to make this the greatest theatre company in the world again," he says. "Ireland is a country full of extraordinary artists and it's my privilege to give them a platform."
So how will they bring this iconic Irish novel to life? Ulysses is set to be one of the Abbey's most ambitious productions for many years, with the auditorium transformed into an amphitheatre and 70 audience members seated beside the actors at tables on stage.
"Each scene has its own distinct style," McLaren explains.
"Some will be entirely musical, others will use puppets. Some will be like a radio drama, others like a Ken Loach movie. You park your knowledge of the book at the door and I think Joyce would have approved of that."
"It's easy to be intimidated by the industry that's grown up around Joyce," Bolger says. "He once joked that Ulysses would keep the scholars busy for centuries and he was right. But he also used to keep [his wife] Nora Barnacle awake at night with his laughter because he knew how funny it was."
Although Bolger has inevitably had to compress Ulysses's sprawling storyline, the main elements remain intact. Leopold Bloom's melancholy journey includes drunken brawls, sexual escapades and tense conversations with fellow Dubliners who are suspicious of his Jewish identity. Back at home, his wife Molly delivers graphic soliloquies about her infidelities and the emptiness of their relationship.
"What I've really tried to do is immerse people in the book's emotional heart," Bolger says. "When you get behind all the linguistic fireworks, there's a very human story about the loss of a child and a marriage frozen by grief. I hope that Irish people who have never read a word of Joyce could come to see this and be shocked by how contemporary it feels and how much of themselves they can recognise."
McLaren is keen to stress that the play must be seen as a piece of art in its own right. "If you look around this rehearsal room, you won't see any copies of the novel. I've told the actors that if something is not in Dermot's script, it's inadmissible as evidence. I realised early on that the tools I would use for Shakespeare or Seán O'Casey won't get you very far here - it needs a theatrical language all of its own."
Bolger first adapted Ulysses in 1994 for a staged reading at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, which owns Joyce's original handwritten manuscript. Unfortunately, the text saw just one more performance in Dublin before changes to EU copyright law put it out of bounds for almost another 20 years.
"I expected that show to be seen by two men and a dog," he recalls. "In the end, we couldn't get a dog so it was just two men." Reflecting on the experience later, he once said. "There must be more enjoyable ways to go bald."
Even so, Bolger's appreciation of Ulysses has only deepened over time. He made his name almost 40 years ago as the founder of Raven Arts Press, a radical publishing house which pioneered more inclusive ideas about Irishness and nationalism. This is why he regards the downtrodden but quietly patriotic Leopold Bloom as a kindred spirit.
"I've just been reading a biography of Alfie Byrne, the Lord Mayor of Dublin who spent the 1916 Rising distributing bread to poor people around the city. Bloom is a bit like that. He's the sort of unassuming guy who starts up credit unions and does a lot more good than any gunman.
"If I could put an inscription on the O'Connell Street spire, it would be Bloom's words to Stephen Dedalus: 'I resent violence or intolerance in any form. A revolution must come on the due instalments plan'."
In this production Leopold and Molly will be played by David Pearse and Janet Moran, two actors who previously portrayed a quarrelsome couple in the RTÉ comedy drama Trivia. "A programme I had never seen," McLaren laughs. "In fact, I asked Janet if she knew this guy David and she laughed at me. But that's one advantage of being an outsider here - I have no idea who's famous or who isn't and I'm not really bothered. I just ask myself if I can work with this person in a room for a month without us wanting to throttle each other."
As the conversation turns to McLaren and Murray's first nine months in full charge at the Abbey (they overlapped with their predecessor Fiach Mac Conghail for the second half of 2016), certain phrases crop up time and time again.
"It's all allowed," is one, reflecting McLaren's openness to new ideas and writers regardless of their reputations. "Respect, not reverence," is another, his polite way of saying that the Abbey can no longer afford to trade on its historic reputation.
"Look, this is one of half a dozen theatres that people across the world can name," he says.
"But the Abbey has got to believe its best years still lie ahead. For too long it behaved as if there was a rulebook and there really isn't."
While critics have been divided over the quality of McLaren and Murray's 2017 programme, nobody can complain about the quantity. It contains no fewer than 30 shows, many with smaller casts and shorter runs than Abbey audiences have come to expect. The building has also become more of an open house, hosting several co-productions this year with independent companies such as Druid, Corn Exchange and Rough Magic.
In response to Waking the Feminists, a grassroots protest movement against the Abbey's overwhelmingly male line-up in 2016, there are now more female directors working there than ever before.
"I would say that we're putting the word 'national' back into this theatre," McLaren says. "That's why we opened Jimmy's Hall in Carrick-on-Shannon, because it's a play about Leitrim. That's why we've been putting Roddy Doyle's Two Pints on in pubs around the country. That's why we're holding free previews for some shows, including Ulysses, so that everyone has a chance to come."
By coincidence, Dublin's Gate Theatre has also recently come under new leadership in the person of director Selina Cartmell. McLaren underlines his philosophy of peaceful co-existence by declaring that he "absolutely loved" her first production, an immersive staging of The Great Gatsby (he and this writer first met as we donned aprons and served tea to the title character on opening night).
"It was a fantastic way for Gate audiences to re-imagine their relationship with that building," he says. "Of course, I gave her the idea."
Really? "Nooo!" he exclaims, slapping his knee with laughter. "Did you think I'd given you a scoop?"
As our time together draws to a close, Bolger offers his new colleague some words of support.
"I think the Abbey is in a really exciting place now and I'm delighted to be part of it," he says.
"Having Ulysses staged here is like winning with a prize bond I bought years ago."
"It's just us, telling stories," McLaren concludes. "That's all a national theatre is. And Ulysses is one of the greatest Irish stories of all."
Ulysses runs at Dublin's Abbey Theatre from October 3-28, with a free preview on October 2