A THEATRE REVIEW by Trevor Code
June 16th comes round again, and all over the world it is Bloomsday – supposedly a late spring day commemorating James Joyce’s meeting with Nora in Dublin. In a way, it is like Christmas or Easter, particularly in the hands of Bloomsday Melbourne Inc. On Bloomsday throughout various countries, especially in the northern hemisphere, patrons and ingénues trot out their copies of Ulysses, gather in bars or cafés and read to each other, professionally or haltingly, from this experimental, sometimes ribald, often challenging epic. In some venues the celebration starts early – and appropriately fed and lubricated, the devotees mouth on – throughout the day and into the night. Or in other towns, there is a differentinvitation: bring your own bookmarked copy, and read your favourite passage, even if others read it too. In Dublin, all these things do happen of course, with special walking tours for tourists to the geographical sites starting from the Sandycove Martello Tower, or with known identities reading to the microphone in the rotunda at St Stephen’s Green. It goes on thus, even if the spring day turns out to be soggy and the umbrellas are blown about. This is a day for enthusiasts and a great boost to the tourist economy. In other cities of the world, there are parallel perambulations around an urban landscape where local businesses: bookshops, printeries, cafés, eateries and bars, stand in for Joyce’s Dublin – even the mortuary has its place. Bloomsday has gone international, and will go on so for years we hope, as a robust, dedicated, mainly amateur feast. Year after year. No doubt of that. But Bloomsday in Melbourne is not amateur. It is not confined to the one day, but has become a festival – with seminars, a special dinner with speaker, and a theatrical presentation. The company works all year, seeks patronage, raises funds, produces new or freshly edited scripts, and employs for the most part experienced and professional actors. And it is not a spring day, but in the throes of winter. Over the years the offerings have moved about: the Law Courts, Trades Hall, City Arcades, a University College, a fashionable downstairs theatre and gallery, and this year, Brighton Theatre Company’s little theatre in the up-market suburb and attached to its historic Town Hall. Furthermore, this year the Company has made a slam version of the whole energetic epic! In this production in Melbourne, possibly the largest Bloomsday in the world (?), lies its problems, and what we might also claim to be its success. Because of the comfortable bucket seats in this cosy little theatre, I am quick to say that this was easily the most comfortable Bloomsday I have ‘experienced,’ not on June 16, but on its Opening Night, Thursday June 12. We enjoyed it. We would go again. But should Joyce be comfortable? And was this major work supposed to be so easy and so mildly entertaining? As we are reminded in the program notes, Ulysses is a novel – not a play, and not play-writing, though some chapters seem to show Joyce’s awareness of playwriting. We are assured that almost every word we hear is from Joyce’s text, and we do not doubt that. It is called Ulysses Prestissimo. I think for the most part that it is Ulysses ‘filleted’. The adaptation reminds me of those LP recordings of great plays, always advertised as “highlights” (World Record Club). I have one that does Hamlet in about 40 minutes. So these snippets of Ulysses detain us for about two hours (plus interval). Most of the recognisable or memorable bits are there, however truncated, especially the cloacal, masturbatory and the ugly, and satirised, cultural identity jibes. It was something for the director and actors to work with. I recall that last year, not constrained by Joyce’s text alone, the same director and some of the same actors were able to use the spaces of ‘fortyfivedownstairs’ (Theatre) to great effect, opening up into much biography, psychology and imagination. But we came to see a night at the Brighton Theatre – not as the traditional Bloomsday, but a theatrical Brighton presentation. I saw it first night, and no doubt this production gelled and developed in its subsequent six performances. Other playwrights seemed to hover here in this convergent proscenium-style theatre: Ibsen? Beckett? Brecht? As I have said, we enjoyed ourselves and this production.
James Joyce’s Ulysses may be termed ‘modernist,’ but it is such a unique work that it is difficult to categorise, and also very difficult to manipulate. In recent years Bloomsday Melbourne Inc has edited and reshaped chapters for its quasi-theatrical presentations, but now, to take on the whole of this both internalised and externalised mammoth of a work, so geographically, physically and psychologically capacious, is to attempt something Herculean, including the stables! And faced with the ensuing committee-driven script, especially when boxed into a small ‘intimate’ theatre, it becomes challenging, especially when the editing is necessarily truncated. No doubt this production will have developed throughout the run, but on the opening night it appeared to me that the second half was clearly more successful than the first half. Doubling in theatre is an old convention, but the doubling, tripling and quadrupling was not always successful even when it displayed memorable Joycean lines. We crossed many chapters or locations, but in the first half the effect was one of sameness. Such an intimate theatre tends to be limiting, and I felt there needed to be a greater sense of space, more changes of tempo, contrasts, and trenchant pauses. Perhaps this production needed to come out beyond the proscenium arch, even into the whole auditorium. I am not demeaning the direction so much as acknowledging the difficulty of the task. The use of honey-coloured chairs, constantly taken off, re-arranged or re-grouped, was a distraction rather than a scene changer: something more fixed and less obtrusive might have helped. The direction governed excellent character portrayals, but, perhaps because of this script and theatre, aspects of both time and space could be troublesome. Many of the Bloomsday actors we have seen and admired before. To see Drew Tingwell reprise and extend his role as Leopold Bloom was a joy. Most of the accents were secure and reasonably convincing. Given the nature of Joyce’s experimental language and ear, longer passages in the performance were often better handled than dialogue, especially when musing and internalised, as in the scripting of the ‘Deranged Poet’, played by Debra Low (in Cyclops).
Perhaps it was thought that the questions and answers in chapter 17, would work when presented as a commercial TV quiz show. I did not find it so, and given that, I think it went on too long. Joyce’s novel refers to many songs throughout, and in this production we were given many snippets, sometimes as a chopped off half-line. This was frustrating: we needed more than a taste of these parlour pieces. They fit the period. I agree the novel does this, to create an expressionistic literary effect, but possibly theatre needed to expand and cut differently. However, the piano breaks, featuring music referenced by Joyce, to mark changes of scene effectively. The doubling was something of a problem, because the lead singer was so clearly Liam Gillespie, playing all of the following: the singer, Stephen and Simon, his father. Why, at times, with such an edited and truncated script, did I find myself thinking of the epic theatre of Brecht – in a much later period, and yet also feeling that Joyce was reduced to Beckett? Something about mode, and this little theatre perhaps? And yet, as my wife and partner said to me, and she is a European scholar rather than a Joycean, this was the most comfortable and possibly most rewarding Bloomsday in Melbourne yet, at least for the audience.
I reserve my final statement for the final scene. Joyce’s Ulysses is not a classic, simply because it is itself. It is unique. We take away from it, inevitably, the final scene, which publicists, even from this company, like to record with ‘yes yes yes.’ In the novel text it is a very long chapter, ‘stream-of-consciousness,’ but in production it is musing, sometimes talking and exploring aloud, with physical action as interruptions, even to pee, and Molly commenting about the noise of the chamber pot. This chapter is usually cut back to what I might call Shakespearean soliloquy length. So of necessity it has to be shortened. I have seen many productions, and heard many Bloomsday readings. I have also listened to many recordings, some historic and by famous actresses. This performance transcended many things. It was naturally intimate and three-dimensional; it was enquiring and at home with the body, with its physicality and consciousness. The breasts could be handled naturally, graphically and somehow appropriately; the scene’s development through ‘yes’ to its whole female acceptance as coda, was not conventionally orgasmic but complete and decisive. Never have I heard, or witnessed this scene played better. Not virtuoso, not short, but totally revelatory. In this one scene, Cathy Kohlen brought the whole evening together. It was unforgettable.