A Theatre Review by Janet Strachan
The Reel James Joyce, Directed by Wayne Pearn for Bloomsday in Melbourne, 10-16 June, Theatre at the Dock, Docklands.
In his paper, ‘Shooting Ulysses – Joyce’s Masterpiece at the Movies’ given at this year’s Bloomsday Seminar, Dr Steve Carey outlined three justifications for attempting to make a film of Ulysses: as an introduction to the novel for an audience unfamiliar with it; as an original interpretation of Joyce’s work for those who know and love it; and finally as entertainment. The play performed later that same evening, The Reel James Joyce, about a failed (fictional) attempt to make such a film, fulfilled all three of Dr Carey’s criteria. In its division into ‘master scenes’, largely featuring Leopold Bloom as played by Charlie Chaplin and involving a cast of characters well-known in popular culture, such as Mae West in best wise-cracking form, the play was accessible to everybody. And from the beginning, while the baffling concept of the ‘ineluctable modality of the visual’ was made comprehensible by translation into a succession of approximating clichés, the play addressed interesting ideas about Ulysses’ filmic qualities. The differences between avant garde cinema and the mere filming of the surfaces of things, were reflected in the play’s form. Onstage action involved characters in
‘real time’ including Charlie Chaplin and James Joyce, Nora Barnacle, Chaplin’s assistants and a variety of actors working on a ‘treatment’ for the film. Some of these characters also played characters from Ulysses in key scenes while the screen above the stage showed film clips and titles in the style of silent films. The multimedia staging was certainly appropriate for presenting an original and interesting observation of the relationship between Joyce’s prose and cinema, and above all, the play met Dr. Carey’s third criterion for a film: it was very funny.
Set in Paris in 1924, the play opens, appropriately enough in a cinema where James Joyce and Charlie Chaplin meet at a screening of Chaplin’s film, L’Opinion Publique (A Woman of Paris). Despite his deteriorating eyesight, Joyce is a cinephile, the two main characters admire each other’s art and Charles, as Joyce calls him throughout, offers to direct and star in a film of Ulysses. A simple set then serves as James and Nora Joyce’s Paris apartment while the cinema screen remains on the back wall throughout, a clever device to allow the display of relevant archival film clips and stills as well as silent film titles for the rest of the show. Wayne Pearn, the director, made excellent use of the rather limited space available in the Docklands library theatre.
As for the performances, Dan Walls’ Chaplin was a peacock, the little man with the big ego. He argued throughout the play with Joyce over artistic control, comically demonstrating his qualifications to dance with the Russian ballet, breaking into the Charleston with Lucia and as Bloom, performing a characteristic slapstick routine as he climbed over the wall into 7 Eccles Street with Fifi as a drunken Stephen. Finally deciding to give up on the ‘unrealizable’ project of filming Ulysses, he made his exit with a moving rendition of ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’.
All the women showed great versatility in their multiple parts. Bridgette Burton as Mimi, Gigi and Fifi, Charlie’s clone-like assistants, was cleverly and beautifully costumed in the same Breton top but with differently coloured wigs, berets and scarves for each young woman. Decorative and charming with her exaggerated French accent she had great comic timing as the several recent graduates from the Sorbonne. Sarah Plummer was a voluptuous Molly, a simpering Gertie, a skittish Lucia and clearly enjoyed giving a hilarious performance as Theda Bara’s Penelope chewing the scenery.
Kelly Nash began and ended as Joyce’s ‘eyes’ in the cinema in the roles of Maria Jolas and Nora. She also made an imperious Coco Chanel becoming progressively sluttier as the Whore and the formidable Bella Cohen, bringing the house down as Mae West delivering the line ‘You know…I’ve always said good sex is like good bridge…if you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand’. This was an inspired choice of quotation in the context of the discussion of the burning of Ulysses by the American postal service because of ‘that scene’ from Nausicaa enacted earlier!
As for Steve Gome as Joyce, he looked spookily like the man himself with long face, spectacles and eye-patch, and was an extraordinarily charismatic stage presence. A dirty laugh and wicked grin contributed to his infectious charm as he responded appreciatively to Mae’s dictum that ‘those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.’ But alongside all the fun, from the beginning, Joyce’s enthusiasm for the medium of cinema is clearly articulated in the play as a serious appreciation of its artistic possibilities. Gome succeeds in investing his character with a convincing passion for his art, so the theoretical discussions in the script avoid sounding too didactic. He answers Chaplin’s pompous claim, ‘I work in the artistic medium of the twentieth century’, with his confession that ‘visual illusions fascinate me…cutting…flicking from present to past to future and back…time-lapse…those magical transformations when you simply stop the camera… so much psychology’, this delivered with a sincerity which rings true. And then, in referring to Finnegans Wake: ‘In my new Work in Progress I do admit Charles, I’m using many ‘tricks’… [like Georges Méliès with]…’his persistent experimentation, illusions, transformations…’ Joyce’s idea of cinema is more sophisticated than Chaplin’s. Charlie of course is not interested in discussing any other director’s talent. Later Joyce is more careful to voice his admiration for Eisenstein whose ‘verbal montage is a little like my montage’ out of Charlie’s hearing. And it becomes clear in Charlie’s treatment of the first master scene, ‘Proteus’, that the exaggerated style of silent film cannot do justice to Joyce’s work when the miming of the actor (played by Silas James in white face with kohl outlined eyes and plastered-down hair) makes Stephen’s intensity ridiculous. Any cinema version of Joyce’s work needs sound, but Chaplin is not ready to admit that until the end of the play.
Chaplin’s Calypso with images and titles in quick succession, succeeds a little better in capturing ‘real life among the Dublin bourgeoisie as an audience would expect it to be’ but, as Joyce says, it is still too theatrical, ‘staged for an audience, rather than just happening naturally’. But Charlie will have none of it, dismissing naturalism as ‘way too political’, full of ‘hopeless miserable victims’ and too highbrow. When it transpires that Charlie has never heard of Zola and that he is more interested in the ‘jakes’ scene than in the ‘too wordy and intellectual’ metempsychosis, it becomes ever clearer that he is likely to mine Joyce’s novel solely for the physical comedy.
Well-chosen film clips enrich the audience’s experience of the play, particularly the absurdist extract from Eric Satie and Rene Clair’s Entr’acte whose ‘gallows humour’ appeals to Joyce as a style for the treatment of Hades, ‘complete with funereal can-can…novel twist on the sex and death theme, eh?’ The funeral with its camels and mourners running after the hearse in slow motion as if ‘chasing death for their dear lives’ reminds Joyce of Bloom’s stream of consciousness at Paddy Dignam’s funeral as he muses, ‘extraordinary the interest they take in a corpse’. ‘Can’t you hear it?’ he appeals to Chaplin, ‘Bloom’s words, Satie’s music?’ Eric Satie (played by Silas James in another of his roles) haunts the play, his incidental music and his entrances with hand-held megaphone punctuating the action at intervals to reflect Joyce’s admiration both for Satie’s music and his modernist sensibility. Satie’s demise finally coincides with the death of the project.
Apparently giving up on death, the collaborators now move on to sex and Nausicaa. ‘This scene needs a subtle touch’ warns Joyce, wanting to avoid prurience and to demonstrate that ‘men and women are not on the same page when it comes to love and sex’. He need not have worried. Charlie is persuaded that montage and ‘cross-cutting will capture [the] irony’ and the climactic Roman candle is a gift: ‘if fireworks explode and Roman candles splutter in your book, they can certainly be conjured up in film. In fact, I’d like to focus closely on Bloom’s face…’ he says, as well as focusing on Gerty’s frilly cami-knickers. As a background to this discussion, Gigi’s avid reading of the text provides the comedy as she becomes increasingly titillated and scandalised, her response also being a comment on the hypocritical reaction of the voyeurism of the reader.
Crude violence is even easier than crude sex to represent on film, but again, Joyce and Chaplin are at cross purposes as they discuss Charlie’s treatment of Cyclops. The Jacobs Biscuit Tin (great prop!) isn’t enough for Chaplin as he demonstrates with another clip the kind of ‘good old-fashioned bar-room brawl’ he wants to stage at Barney Kiernan’s Pub. In despair Joyce tries to explain that the violence was all under the surface in Dublin in 1904 and that the tin of biscuits made in Ireland was ‘a symbol of what was to come’. A succession of titles and images does the job of listing the Troubles of the next two decades but Chaplin throws the biscuit tin at Joyce, the irony punctuated by the discordant music of Satie’s Relache and Joyce breathes, ‘God help me…Cyclops in two seconds! What next!’
What’s next is Circe, set in Bella Cohen’s brothel, arguably the most filmic chapter of the novel as Chaplin recognizes enthusiastically, ‘It’s already a playscript. Made for the screen’. Joyce agrees, describing the ‘brittle segues…transformations…discontinuities…sudden changes of state,’ techniques he needs to represent ‘Bloom’s hopes, fears, anxieties’. He again evokes Méliès but Chaplin dismisses the old director as a ‘has been’ with his ‘stop tricks, dissolves, multiple exposures’ though he admits they are ‘perfect for your metamorphoses’ and recognizes that Joyce’s ‘phantasms don’t exist for their own sake… or just for entertainment’. When JJ replies that Bloom wants to experience being a woman and having babies, Charlie starts clowning again, miming pregnancy and giving birth but there follow a succession of titles and images on the screen to represent Joyce’s belief that cinema can ‘shake the foundation of our idées fixes’ about gender. Meanwhile on stage Charlie/Bloom is dressed as a woman and abused by Bella/Bello. Much dumb show transpires but Joyce regrets ‘so much language sacrificed on the altar of your images Charlie’ and reads passages of wordplay from the text to illustrate his point. In the meantime, Gigi is also inspired to read from her copy of Ulysses as Joyce reminds Charlie, and us, ‘Bella’s a pantomime dame… she has to titillate, make you laugh, and, best of all, make you think. If we can’t laugh at her, my point will be lost.’ Laughter then turns to pathos, as accompanied by Satie’s music, ‘Bloom’s loss…Stephen’s need’ is evoked by images of baby Rudi and the child
Stephen on the screen. The mood changes yet again when Fifi suggests deleting Stephen from the film, shocking and infuriating Joyce. Enter Mae West…
With Chaplin’s treatment of Penelope’s monologue, the collaboration disintegrates into open hostility. ‘Joyce, this is pure filth!’ exclaims Charlie reading from the novel. ‘Nothing pure about it!’ quips Joyce, raising the biggest laugh of the evening. But he adds ‘If Ulysses is not fit to read, life is not fit to live…And you’ve just demonstrated that you are unable to do justice to a film based on Oolissayse.’ When he asks ‘Where are your ears? I don’t think you can hear my music, Chaplin.’ Charlie is so offended he snaps back savagely ‘Maybe it’s because you’re blind that you can’t see the possibilities.’ The tension is broken by the hilarious Theda Bara scene but it is clear that her performance and Chaplin’s treatment can only now produce a travesty of Joyce’s masterpiece, a situation confirmed by Chaplin’s disrespect for Ithaca. His version of Ulysses for commercial cinema is so reductive that the damage is irreparable: ‘the Bloom and Molly story is the only story that’ll interest an audience. Bloom’s your ‘hero’; Molly’s your ‘love interest’; and Blazes Boylan is your ‘arch villain’ that every audience loves to hate.’ Angrily Joyce hankers after ‘a cinematic language that is up to the job, not just visually, but in this coming medium, sound!’ Chaplin concedes but escapes back to Hollywood, too impatient to wait for sound, while Joyce goes back to his Work in Progress, ‘… the show must go on…Time, the pressant… Waking the Weary of the World…’ and announces the title: Finnegan’s Wake.
The play ends a year later in the cinema where it began, this time with the (invisible) screen above the audience. Steve Gome as Joyce and Kelly Nash as Nora are facing it, not with their backs to the audience as Joyce and Maria Jolas were in the opening scene. They are watching Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Nora describes for Joyce, and us, the famous scene when Charlie Chaplin’s character eats his boot. She does this so vividly that the power of words to conjure images is vindicated, making the point much more effectively without the accompanying film clip. Having responded with much laughter, Joyce generously decides to write to congratulate Chaplin on his masterpiece and admit that ‘I now believe Ulysses may eventually prove to be unrealizable’.
Between them, the writing team led by Di Silber and Wayne Pearn with his cast and crew have succeeded in making The Reel Joyce an entertaining, witty, informative, intelligent and thought-provoking tribute to the great James Joyce.