Behind the Scenes of ‘Ulysses Prestissimo’, an 18+ comedy.

A Feature by Frances Devlin- Glass

Bloom Running Hither and Thither

Speed-reading Ulysses. How ambivalent is Bloom about Molly? L to R: Catherine Kohlen and Drew Tingwell. Photos by Bernard Peasley.

Bloomsday passes a milestone in 2014: 21 Bloomsdays in Melbourne, a maturity of sorts. It has had six theatre directors in that time, moved from the streets and byways into theatres, and professionalised its offering. This year, Brighton Theatre Company and Words by the Bay, Bayside Council’s Literary Series, are the hosts. The theatre at the old Brighton Town hall, now the Bayside Arts and Cultural Centre, is very comfortable, intimate in exactly the way Bloomsday needs it to be, and well-equipped.

This year’s show, Ulysses Prestissimo, directed by Wayne Pearn, is a speed-reading of Ulysses, which refuses to compromise on the variety and linguistic virtuosity of the text. It covers all 18 episodes and aims to render their textures and distinctively different styles faithfully chapter-by-chapter. So, the episode which explores the musicality of language, Sirens, will be accompanied by a percussion band, and its musical fragments will be given their place as part of Bloom’s own inner responses to the music he listens to in the Ormond Hotel. Another chapter uses the question and answer form of the catechism and puts it to ends that would have the old-time educators who believed in rote learning tut-tutting. Molly’s associative logic and contradictoriness are necessarily climactic, in a show that has several climaxes. Joyce was as inventive as the man he admires most and emulates – Shakespeare. He even gives over a whole chapter to Shakespeare, in the form of a literary debate occurring in the National Library of Ireland. Most of all the scripters and the director are keen that the exuberance and comedy which is the hallmark of Ulysses are preserved, along with the literary experiments. The question is: ‘will the earth move for Gerty’? We expect so!

What kind of man takes on such a directing challenge? Wayne Pearn has a long history in theatre, and in particular in theatre at the literary end of the spectrum. And he has a weakness for Irish plays (he is shortly to stage the Victorian premiere season of Conor MacPherson’s The Seafarer at fortyfivedownstairs). He is fearless, and seemingly completely undaunted by the challenges posed by Joyce, and is luxuriating, as a director of Joyce needs to do, in the wickedness of the text, its verbal lusciousness, its wit and playfulness. The scope of the challenge is huge: 80+ characters, an almost non-existent plot, characters that build slowly and almost despite themselves, episodes in different styles, emotional segues which are very sudden and unpredictable. He delivered The Seven Ages of Joyce to a sell-out audience at fortyfivedownstairs (theatre in Flinders Lane) in 2013. It was a version of Joyce’s life told through his fiction. It was both appreciative and slyly mordant in its depiction of Joyce, in all his drive and self-belief, not to say arrogance.

Pearn has selected for Ulysses Prestissimo a strong team, and the play has been in rehearsal for some months. His process of casting is meticulous and once in place, the actors undergo a grueling but exhilarating process of internalising their characters. Some are actors returning to Bloomsday for their third or fourth or even fifth immersion in Joyce, so they are quite experienced – like Drew Tingwell, Debra Low, Silas James, Liam Gillespie and Gerry Halliday. The newcomers – Catherine Kohlen, Leeanne Cairnduff, Steven Dawson and Chris Boek – are able to profit from the depth of understanding of the serial Bloomsday Players. It’s been fascinating to watch what actors bring to the staging of the play: Steven Dawson has a long history of working in comedy and will chance his arm at anything exuberant, and is drawing on his background in Wildean comedy to give us Buck Mulligan, and in some other mysterious part of himself, in rendering the cross-gender Bella/Bello. Debra Low, as in Seven Ages, is exploring a number of cameos which allow her to showcase and strut her best physical theatre and clowning repertoire. Leanne Cairnduff, like many of the women characters in this show, which is heavily weighted as is the novel, towards men, is finding her inner manliness, in particular as The Citizen, and Chris Boek is called upon to be Blazes Boylan, cad and roué, as well as a range of gentleman-scholar types. The multiplying of cameos in this show is a good testing ground for actors’ skills. The leading lady, Catherine Kohlen, who plays both the inhibited Gerty and her polar opposite, the Mediterranean Molly, gets also to play a few men. As Molly, she is canny and wily, but also winning. Actors report that playing Joyce is undoubtedly as difficult as playing Shakespeare, and as rewarding.

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Bloom (Drew Tingwell) desires the elusive Molly (Catherine Kohlen). Photo by Bernard Peasley.

 

Serial patrons of Bloomsday will be pleased to see much more of Drew Tingwell (yes, nephew of the late and much-loved and admired Bud) as Leopold. Drew is a subtle inward actor and brings gravitas to the role, but also a great sense of fun. He gets ‘jocoseriousness’ and he gets Bloom – no-one much else does. Liam Gillespie has a leading role in this production as a haughty, unreachable, anguished Stephen Dedalus, and we will hear much more of his tenor voice.  Gerry Halliday returns for his fourth venture with Bloomsday in a multiplicity of roles and is clearly enjoying honing his vocal skills.

Ulysses Prestissimo runs 11-16 June at 8.00pm nightly, and as well, there is a matinee at 2.30pm on Sunday 15 June. Bookings advisable as it has a habit of booking out.

If Ulysses Prestissimo is a speed-read, then the Bloomsday Seminar, Ulysses Lento, is a complement in being a set of demonstrations (by paper givers, Philip Harvey and Steve Carey, both experienced Joyce scholars), about the joys of reading such a novel slowly. Just a once-off, 3.00 pm on Bloomsday, 16 June 2014 at 3.00 pm at Brighton Arts and Cultural Centre, Wilson St (booking is advised).

In addition, the Bloomsday  dinner, 16 June at 5.30pm for 6.00pm will showcase a surprise performer. Again, please book to avoid disappointment.

All three events can be enjoyed on the one day, 16 June, but bookings are already heavy for that day.

The organisers take the view that Joyce is not as formidable as his reputation, and find that the spirit of Monty Python and of vaudeville and music hall are good bedfellows and a great way into the novel most people want to read but find daunting (at first).

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a Joyce enthusiast who founded Bloomsday in Melbourne in 1994.