An OBITUARY by Frances Devlin-Glass
It is with shock and an acute sense of loss that the Bloomsday community this week heard of the early death of its first theatre director, Simon McGuinness, in London, after a short illness.
Simon was a flamboyant enabler with an infectious sense of fun and comic timing. He offered his services to Bloomsday in Melbourne in reparation for failing a course on James Joyce. He fully intended to pass it, and under normal circumstances would have, but life and ill-health intervened, and he more than made up for the deficit in the course of many Bloomsdays from its inception until he left for London, we think, in about 2000. Even then, he did not sever his ties, and he was the lynchpin of the production of Her Song be Sung, that Bloomsday in Melbourne took to Dublin in 2004 as he played the leading role of Aloysius G O’Toole (Prahran bookseller)/ James Joyce, and also led one of the four teams, the London-based one, that came together in Dublin.
As an actor, Simon was totally at home in the streets as well as on stages anywhere. He encouraged the Bloomsday Players to take to the streets to perform Joyce (until officiousness and by-laws made that impossible), and he found madcap ways to make the theatricals engaging. On one memorable occasion in the City Square (where the Westin Hotel now sits), he played Bloom in the notorious mutual masturbation scene in Nausicaa – set on Sandymount Strand. With the resourcefulness of the thespian determined to be noticed despite having no lines, Simon, a magnetic personality, forced his audience to acknowledge his presence (no mean feat as he was behind them) and his lechery by agitating the greenery. It may well have been Bloomsday’s subtlest and funniest rendition of the scene. It was Simon who made a virtue of Bloomsday’s minimalist sets — a Victorian bedhead could quite as simply serve as a dock as a bed, as it did at Mietta’s on our first and subsequent Bloomsdays. The bed, on one memorable occasion at the Hyatt Hotel, collapsed under Simon, but as always, he was unflappable and it was simply reassembled and the show went on.
Roz Hames, a committee member, remembers her horror when on her first Bloomsday in 1999, Simon excitedly marked the arrival of the first actor, one Professor Dennis Pryor, an eminent classicist, whose role was to open a series of events based on the Homeric parallels by declaiming an invocation in Greek. Simon ran towards the assembled crowd of actors and participants, near Captain Cook’s Cottage (what better place to mark goings and comings of syphilisation and a transplanted Europe?), neglecting to make allowance for the fallen leaves that liberally covered the flagstones, fell and broke his ankle. We missed his input hugely, and could only bemoan his rotten luck. Much more worked for Simon than didn’t, and the fact that that Bloomsday was able to continue without him as the key player is testament to the quality of the team, and the confidence in performing the material, he built.
The days of peripatetic Bloomsdays in Melbourne are over, but remembered with fond nostalgia by longer-term patrons, and Simon was key to many of them. Not only was he an inspired director who brought many fine actors to Bloomsday (Geoff Keogh, John Flaus, Howard Stanley, Bill Johnston, Maureen Andrew and Gillian Hardy among them) but he was also a caring director/teacher of non-professionals as well. He had a great gift for making things happen. He was also a supportive colleague: he secreted himself under Molly’s bed at the Colonial Inn (no easy task), in case Gill needed a prompt during her monologue. He was also very skilful as an early IT adopter, and was indispensable initially for producing eye-pleasing flyers with graphic elements.
Simon left the University of Melbourne, where he worked (again, he was much loved in the teams he led) in leadership and student outreach, to work at University College London. He subsequently married Heather Wooldridge, an English woman and Language specialist, and the couple lived in London, and for a time, in Southhampton.
Gillian Hardy who directed the show Bloomsday took to Dublin for the Bloomsday Centenary in 2004 had no hesitation in casting Simon in the lead role despite his needing to rehearse half a world away. Under Gillian’s direction, four teams rehearsed in Melbourne (with Geoff Keogh as stand-in for Simon), Dublin, London and Brisbane. Gill describes him as the ‘rock’ of the production, keeping others focused during the very intense rehearsal period in Dublin.
Our props maker, Sian Cartwright, reminded me of the erotic letter we concocted for this production – our imagined version of the first in the series of letters written between Joyce and Nora in 1909-10 when Joyce was laboring under the delusion that Nora had been unfaithful to him when they were first courting. The letter was so steamy (not to say verging on the pornographic) that, in the interests of good taste, it was rendered only in suggestive fragments on stage. Sian had prepared enough copies so that, on stage, we could burn about nine, and not all were used in rehearsal or performance. As a somewhat quirky memento of the play, Simon requested to keep one – and then, disastrously, left it in the pocket of the suit he wore in the show when he had it dry-cleaned. The proprietor of the shop returned it to him in a plastic sleeve, held by the corner as if it were contaminated. Simon did not return to that shop, so damaged did he imagine his reputation to have been.
Diane Silber reports that at the end of the Dublin season, Simon charged her with buying presents for the cast and production team in a city with which she was unfamiliar. Such a request, had it come from other than Simon, would have been onerous. Simon, however, was irresistible.
Simon had recently returned to his first love, theatre, and begun to work as an actor at the Old Vic Theatre. So, it is with sadness that we mark a life cut very short, the loss of a dear friend, and give our warmest condolences to his wife Heather and his mother, Gretta, and his family.
Frances Devlin-Glass on behalf of the Bloomsday Community.
Frances Devlin-Glass collaborated with Simon McGuinness in the early days of Bloomsday in Melbourne, 1994-2000.