Go on, admit it you never finished James Joyce’s self indulgent and best known novel Ulysses. Neither did I. I made it to maybe page 300 before deciding life was way too short to finish reading. So, I was curious when I heard Ulysses was on stage at the Abbey Theatre recently in Dublin. I had the chance to see it when we visited Dublin on a press trip this month.
On a rainy last evening in Dublin we had dinner at The Church Cafe and Bar, a repurposed church, where the founder of the Guinness Brewery was once married. The building itself is pretty spectacular and it makes a great setting for a dining experience. Our main event was the theatre that night, so we raced through the main course and headed off on foot for the short walk to the Abbey Theatre. Naturally it was raining so we hustled to the gorgeous Abbey Theatre.
In fact, Ulysses on stage is every bit as bizarre as you would think. But it is also clever, creative, and risky. I was mostly curious to see how on earth any playwright could wrangle Joyce’s 700 plus pages of rambling prose into a manageable bite sized chunk for a theatregoers attention span. Happy to say that condensed as it is, it definitely works. But does it sacrifice much for the sake of brevity?
Bawdy, comical and creative at its best. Perverse and obscene at its worst. It’s like high level James Joyce. Give me the top notes or the broad themes and pick one arc to hone in on. That’s what this adaptation does well. It picks a strand of the narrative starting with Molly Bloom and winds back through a day in the life of Leopold Bloom. Even at its worst, when you are cringing in the audience thinking this scene is definitely X rated and too much, it is pretty true to the broad themes in Ulysses. Disenfranchisement. Love, Sex, Lust, Betrayal, Guilt, Grief and Loss and a story you could imagine being historically accurate on that day in that specific time.
Listen, this play simply might not be for everyone. Would I want to take my mother or grandmother to see it? No. Is it worthwhile if you appreciate the technical elements of how a play comes together and is staged? Or even how to creatively adapt a far too lengthy literary classic? Absolutely.
Ulysses might not be for everyone and certainly there are a couple of scenes where I thought WHO would want to enact that particular extremely risqué scene on stage. For certain this play pushed the envelope all the way. But so too did the author and the novel. Ulysses is brutally crass and on stage it is anything but charming but still it is creative and witty.
Our seats were higher up, thankfully in this case. Staging was curious with some tables right on the stage itself. The effect of this forced those theatregoers to watch some of the most bawdy scenes so close that it had to have been by turns, both hilarious and completely uncomfortable. There’s a statement in that I think as well. And yet at times I found the staging slightly distracting watching the audience reactions to the actors.
Adapted by Dermot Bolger and directed by Graham McLaren, Ulysses is a curious and clever exercise with some talented acting by the two main characters. Leopold Bloom, played by David Pearse commits fully and then some to this role. He is magnetic as Leopold and physically a perfect choice for the character, as is Molly played by Janet Moran. Moran spends almost an entire play lounging in bed at centre stage, engaged in a lengthy soliloquy about love and grief too. Just when you think she is nothing but a shrewish wife she hits on a vulnerable note of loss remembering the death of their son. Moran hits all the emotions bang on, and she is actually one of the most likeable of all the characters because of the way she weaves longing in with loss. She is physical in her acting employing body and voice fully.
The subplot about grief and loss, a parent’s loss of a child, is a strong current throughout this version of Ulysses, which will speak to many. You will definitely not like Leopold Bloom, but you should appreciate the acting that brings the character to life. And, even when you are disgusted by him, you will empathize when you recognize the cuckholded husband and the grieving father facts of this character.
I was surprised at how much the plot revealed quietly about the Dublin that existed on June 16, 1904. I missed that when I began trying to read the novel in university. But loved that this adaptation is set and staged in Dublin making it resonate. Despite the bawdy humour there were several things that made me think perhaps Ulysses is worth another try.
So is the play itself accessible to more people than the novel ever was? Yes and No. It is condensed and so less taxing. It is a simplified plot. But there’s not much that is simple about Ulysses the play or the novel. It will be accessible to more people due to the fact that is is adapted for the stage and resurrected for a contemporary audience but it is not particularly easy to process. A few people in our area of the theatre at the end indicated they still had no idea what Ulysses was all about.
The acting is solid. Vision, direction and adaptation are clever and creative. Staging is curious. Puppetry was also well done and well integrated in my opinion. This play might infuriate you. It might cause you to think and maybe you will even pick up the book again or read Joyce’s other works. I think that’s the point.
Ulysses at The Abbey Theatre in Dublin
Ulysses was part of the Dublin Theatre Festival which ran until October 15th. Ulysses runs through October 28th at The Abbey Theatre.
I was a guest of Failte Ireland recently and was hosted while in Dublin on The Drama of Dublin media tour. While there we visited many museums, events and attractions and restaurants. Ulysses was part of our itinerary and I was a guest. My opinion is all my own and it is also truthful.