Two views of Bloomsday 2013


The Stars Align for Bloomsday 2013

by Trevor Code


‘Rip the pages, Rip the Pages, Tear up all that Naughty Book’: the Little Review Pornography case of 1921. Left to Right, front row: Tosh Greenslade, Liam Gillespie, Stephanie Lillis, Matt Dorning; back row: Juliette Hughes, Richard Hobson, Greg Rochlin.

Bloomsday in Melbourne.The Seven Ages of Joyce.
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, 13-16 June, 2013.

The final night of Bloomsday in Melbourne’s 2013 festival (June 16, what else?) was the best ever, and possibly the best Bloomsday offering in this diverse world. It was equal on so many counts to all that professional theatre has been offering in this fair city. I have attended Bloomsday offerings in Dublin, and in the USA, and also many previous presentations in Melbourne, and I am confident of this judgement. Behind it is the sure hand of Bloomsday in Melbourne’s company director and producer, the scholar and enthusiast, Professor Frances Devlin Glass.

If I ask why this production is so triumphant, my answer is multi-directional.

Was it the place?
Was it because, after so many different venues, some of them troublesome, Bloomsday in Melbourne have found a home in a small theatre space, with a good atmosphere and acoustics, and a congenial management very much in tune with their ideals – fortyfivedownstairs. This certainly contributed.

Or was it the script?
The applause had hardly died down when I sought out the Producer to ask about this script. The title was The Seven Ages of Joyce and it combined biography with references and re-enactments from nearly all of James Joyce’s works. Of course Joyce the author was the subject, and he delivered to the scriptwriters such rich material to work with, not only from Ulysses but from the rest of the Joycean canon. The audience came to understand something of the creative and experimental process, and the trials of the author, as we saw how the artist’s production ‘bloomed,’right down to Finnegan’s Wake. It was all handled with irreverence and erudition, not always in linear sequence. James Joyce himself, through the actor, was able to read his own obituary – and to comment on it. The essential disquieting scenes of the mentally disturbed daughter, Lucia Joyce, were brilliantly written. How did this production happen? This company had returned to an earlier successful version, but now a team of eight were employed in rewriting, extending and fine-tuning this material – by Joyce, the biographers, the commentators and the company itself. I think it is a triumph.

Or was it the direction?
Such complex material makes demands, and there is much that could have gone awry. Director Wayne Pearn created an amazing panoply. In such a good acoustic acting space, the performances, the movement, the changes of character, the timing and pace, were almost perfect. The director understood what this script demanded, and exacted balance, challenge, risk-taking and vitality from a fine ensemble cast, including the two solo singers who gave a range of applications to salon music, sometimes parody, sometimes soulful. The whole play is a musical treat, at times a romp, with farcical gallimaufry, yet capable of critical insight and pathos. It could be deep, and it could be fun. And this became most memorable. I am minded of the run-on style of many good productions of Shakespeare.

Or was it the professional cast of actors?
This is a most talented and well-credited group of performers. The first thing to note is the quality of ensemble, and the atmosphere of teamwork and joy. One might think that this company had worked together for years. Yet they all deserve to be listed individually. We are left with insights and images: Kevin Dee as the rather solemn artist-writer, refreshing his wine glass, struggling with himself, his family, his conscience and his artistic experimentation – mainly at a central table where the great range of characters swirl around him: Tosh Greenwood in contrasting roles including the sex-prone Stephen Dedalus; Stephanie Lillis’s many roles including Lucia, the hypersensitive daughter and a most articulate cat; Drew Tingwell in a range of contrasting father roles, including his reprise of Leopold Bloom and that character’s likely model, Ettore Schmitz; Liam Gillespie as our Shakespearean host of the seven ages; Corinne Davies doubling as Nora Barnacle (Joyce’s partner) and Molly Bloom in a spectacular and moving performance, as well as several other characters from Ulysses; and the talented Debra Low as the prostitute from Portrait and as several real-life women, including May Joyce (the mother of Joyce) and Sylvia Beach, his publisher, and a host of fictional figures; Matthew Dorning as the frightening and all too familiar Father Dolan; and Gerry Halliday in a series of balanced and supportive roles. The play was complex, and the casting of each of these very talented actors to the multiple roles was brilliant. Each gave so much to the others in an integrated display of ensemble playing, in word, in music and in dance. I give credit to the solo musicians Juliette Hughes and Richard Hobson on the small rostrum upstage right, and their versatile pianist Greg Rochlin too, but of course the whole company blended in the chorus and mime – from historic tunes, to folk, to a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan. If I have to single out a single performance and image, it would be that of Stephanie Lillis as Lucia Joyce, for the script sets her apart at the climax, and the direction enhances it – the bound victim in a straight-jacket, her vivacious Irish accent, her ecstatic poetic language, and her expressive dance movements. She becomes an unforgettable image at the end of the performance.

The play is not linear in time, but inter-leaved. It comments on itself as it goes along, and without predictable soliloquies and dialogues it succeeds in creating sparkling moments of epiphany. The actors, in or out of character, seem to comment on the play itself as it goes along, and its critics and censors too.

I would like to pack this play and production up and keep them if I could, or preserve it to be taken to other Bloomsday sites including Dublin. But I do not need to…I do not need to – because, for me, this production is etched so firmly in the memory, as a not to be forgotten experience. And I say to the company, all of them, congratulations. A laurel wreath for you all.

Trevor has a long history of involvement in theatre (as director of the Therry Society and as an actor). He was Associate Dean of Humanities and he taught International Literature, Shakespeare, American Studies and Creative Writing at Deakin University and as Professor of English at WPI University in Massachusetts, USA. He has attended Bloomsdays in Dublin, the USA and Australia. He is a poet, and a proud descendant of the Codds of Wexford and the Clancys of Cork.

REVIEW no. 2

A Comic View of Life and Death


'Look at the Coffin' - a curtain-call for 'The Seven Ages of Joyce'

‘Look at the Coffin’ – a curtain-call for ‘The Seven Ages of Joyce’

“If you can’t be with the one you love, honey,” sang Stephen Stills in 1970, “love the one you’re with.” And if you can’t be in Dublin for Bloomsday, then there are worse places to be than Melbourne. For starters it’s a port city, like dear dirty Dublin, and as a migrant myself I’ve always thought Australians are rather Irish in their friendliness and garrulity. But there’s more: there’s Bloomsday in Melbourne – as in the organisation that, for the love of it, puts Joyce onto the stage and into the streets every 16th June, commemorating the day on which Ulysses is set.

This is the twentieth such annual event, and as such a cause for celebration in its own right/write/rite. The centrepiece de resistance was The Seven Ages of Joyce, an original production that presented Joyce through the prism of the Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” monologue.

(And by the by, doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun? Remarkably, we’re already further away from Stephen Stills in 1970 than Stephen Stills in 1970 was from the death of Joyce… and the Joyces’ daughter Lucia Joyce died as recently 1982, just 11 years before Bloomsday in Melbourne got going.)

The appetiser for Bloomsday was an entertaining and illuminating seminar, The Obstetrician and the Psychiatrist Examine Joyce. Dr Jo Beatson gave a psychiatrist’s insight into Stephen Dedalus the guilty, grieving son, making him a much more sympathetic character than he is often ajudged. She suggested that Buck Mulligan’s sin against Stephen is a brutal lack of empathy – and that what Dedalus finds in Leopold Bloom is a model of that empathy no-one else, least of all his own father, has provided. Making one look again, and differently, at Stephen is a significant achievement.

Dr James King, by contrast, looked at the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ episode and reminded us just how fleshy Ulysses always remains. King worked as an obstetrician at the Rotunda Hospital (where the episode takes place) and regaled us with earthy stories: the Rotunda foetal stethoscope was seven and a half inches, for example, not for any acoustic or technical reasons, but because the record high jump for a Dublin flea was seven inches!

It was unfortunate that this event was unamplified, making it difficult to hear our softly-spoken, seated doctors. (When Oscar Wilde was at Oxford Walter Pater lectured and afterwards asked whether the audience had heard him: “We overheard you,” Wilde dryly replied.)

The appetite if anything sharpened, we moved to the feast that was The Seven Ages of Joyce. Always there’s that fine balance to be struck. On the one hand, you must ensure what you present can be understood by someone with perhaps only a beginner’s sketchy knowledge of Joyce or maybe none; and on the other, you know in your audience there will be those who know Joyce and all his works… even that one.

In this balance the 2013 Bloomsday Festival presentation succeeded triumphantly, not only through the efforts of a creative, knowledgeable scripting team which gave us enough Joyce verbatim and biographical to be going on with, but through an outstanding ensemble cast.

It also captured something those who haven’t read Joyce (yet), don’t know, and those who have sometimes forget: it’s an absolute hoot. Joyce’s is a comic view of life, and in this respect (as in so many others) the production did not disappoint.

You pays your money and you takes your Joyce – in this case, two for the price of one, with James the younger (Tosh Greenslade) all jejune callowness and James the older (Kevin Dee) haughty and self-regarding. The principal women – Joyce’s Nora of course, Molly Bloom, the Joyces’ schizophrenic daughter Lucia – were outstandingly vivid, courtesy of Corinne Davies and Stephanie Lillis (who also makes the best miaow I’ve yet heard from Poldy’s cat) respectively. Drew Tingwell portrayed both a larger-than-life Simon Joyce, father of our man, and a compassionate, mature Leopold Bloom (modelled almost directly on Italo Svevo, if this production was to be believed).

Another character you can’t do Bloomsday justice without is music, and the play was well served in this regard under Musical Director and Pianist and long-term Bloomster Greg Rochlin, with soprano Juliette Hughes and tenor Richard Hobson given opportunity to add grace notes. There was also a grand Gilbert and Sullivanesque courtroom scene around the Ulysses ban which was lively, witty and very funny, though it felt like another production.

And there indeed, as always with Joyce, is the danger: richness taken too far collapses into chaos. It was a lot to take on: all the writing and all the life. At times the characters and the scenes passed by with such rapidity the thread came close to unravelling. Sam Beckett, for instance, made an appearance so startlingly brief that if you don’t know the back story – he was Joyce’s secretary and the unwilling object of Lucia’s romantic attention, ending up, as so many did, on the outer with Joyce – you could easily be forgiven for thinking two pages of the script had been turned in one go. Conversely the last few pages needed a trim, with Joyce’s death and burial dragging when what it needed was a swift execution. Neither was there room on this occasion for Lucia’s bizarre trip home to Bray, an illuminating but essentially minor detail in the Joyce story. (However, Lillis’ luminous presence and the loveliness of the writing suggests there’s room to do more with Finnegan’s Wake on another Bloomsday…)

Was the Shakespearean conceit is more a prison than a prism? It certainly gave the production scaffolding: we usually knew when we were, if not always where (the Joyce family’s European shuttling can throw you off the scent as if you were an unpaid landlord).

The Shakespearean frame was not, in truth, a perfect fit for a Joycean portrait: he died before 60, for instance, so whether he could truly be said to have reached old age at all is moot. Certainly he was decrepit: his epitaph could easily have read, “I told you I was ill.” Certainly by the end he was pretty much “sans eyes” and arguably had always been “sans taste,” if by taste one means the eager-to-be-offended prissiness with which so many greeted Ulysses. (“If Ulysses isn’t fit to read,” Joyce observed, “life isn’t fit to live.” When approached by a young man eager to “kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses,” Joyce responded, “Certainly not. It did many other things too.” Life, as the ad says: be in it.) But by the time of his death he was certainly a long way from “mere oblivion,” with an obituary front cover on Time magazine.

But all this is simply to say that the play had ambition to burn and didn’t know how to stop – and you could say the same about Joyce himself.

It was a Molly of a different stripe altogether who said it, but never mind all that: do yourself a favour. Next Bloomsday, book a date with Bloomsday in Melbourne. The twenty-first should be one hell of a party!

Steve Carey studied with Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann at Oxford and wrote his doctoral thesis on comedy in Ulysses. He came to Melbourne late last century.