Behind the Scenes at Bloomsday in Melbourne

A news item and Arts feature, by Frances Devlin-Glass, Artistic Director of Bloomsday in Melbourne.

Five of the six periods represented in Holy Cow! L to R: Mitch Edwards, Johnathan Peck, Hunter Perske, Tim McMullin, Matthew Connell.

Twenty-five Joyce festivals in Melbourne (plus two more, in Dublin 2004 and Kobe, Japan, in 2003) is something to celebrate. The tiny powerhouse committee takes some pride in how many thousands of folk Bloomsday in Melbourne has introduced to James Joyce’s masterwork, Ulysses.  What began as simple street theatre on 16 June 1994 at the State Library of Victoria and in the streets and lanes of Melbourne has become an annual event with a professionally mounted play, on a different aspect of Joyce annually. In 2017-18, Bloomsday mounted 10 courses, some running as long as 10 weeks, and some as day-long intensives in Melbourne and beyond, all fully (or almost fully) subscribed. We hope Bloomsday in Melbourne has knocked into a cocked hat the notion that it’s impenetrable (but don’t be surprised if the mainstream press tell you it’s only readable by the experts once again, for the nth time). Naturally, it helps to have actors mediating the words on the page, giving them intention and physically embodying them. There is no doubt actors and theatre-directors add immense value to the Bloomsday committee’s scripts: Joyce’s words scintillate and perform and are physically embodied by them.

In 2018, Bloomsday returns to fortyfivedownstairs, a superb venue for a theatrical event such as Holy Cow!  The play features a lot of firsts:

  • A new director, Jennifer Sarah Dean, new to Australia, a

    Jennifer Sarah Dean, Director of Holy Cow! for Bloomsday in Melbourne.

    Shakespearean who trained at the Globe. She is Bloomsday’s 7th director (many have stayed as long as 5 years). We welcome her as her skills are a good fit with Joyce’s most literary chapter.

  • A new cast of Shakespearean actors who have come with Jen from the theatre company, Melbourne Shakespeare Company, she set up when she arrived in Melbourne two years ago. They took little time to find their feet with Joyce but have found their wings, uplifted by Joyce’s extraordinary words.
  • She has also brought in new talent on the technical side – Jack Gittings as stage manager, Alia Syed as Designer, and Rhiannon Irving (who works at the Australian Ballet and for other major companies) as Costume Designer and creator.
  • An old script has been radically revamped for entirely different staging – a production in-the-round of demanding 14th chapter of Ulysses, Oxen of the Sun, which rips through some 1500 years of literary history. It’s a literary tour conducted by an eccentric comedian who satirizes as much as he imitates, and tells his outrageous tale in the styles (often discordant) of the past.

The Director immediately made her mark by deciding to forgo the kinds of devices the scripters are familiar with and to opt for more theatrical ways of marking the passage of time and of styles. Some six major changes in fashion will help to mark changes in the zeitgeist, so there is much more attention to costume than ever before.

While the setting and the craic are unmistakably Dublin, the literary tour embraces some Irish writers (Swift, Sterne, Goldsmith, Sheridan) but mostly lashes out at English classics – the revenge of a supremely gifted Irish writer on English letters. The upstart Joyce was intent on proving that greatness can emerge from one whom his ‘betters’ would prefer to use him for odd jobs, but who is in no doubt that he is Modernity’s answer to Shakespeare.

Hunter Perske, as Leopold Bloom, the still centre of a turbulent world.

The narrative of this chapter is disarmingly simple: Bloom goes to the Holles Street Maternity Hospital (presided over, as Joyce was personally aware – he was briefly a medical student at St Catherine’s – by one aptly named A. Horne) to lend his moral
support and congratulate an elderly multigravida on the birth of her 13thchild. Bloom is kindness itself, but he of course has a dark motive – he’s avoiding going home because his cuckold is ensconsed there with Molly. The method of Joyce’s chapter is the opposite of simple: he tells the story in some 34 styles (and the borrowings have been computed to be upwards of 3000) of English literature, starting with Anglo-Saxon, and while he’s about it, he’ll parody them, or put them to ends unthought of by the originators of the styles.

Stephen Dedalus (played by Matthew Connell)  – Puritan?

Jennifer Sarah Dean, fresh from the Globe Theatre, London, has some inventive ideas for marking the changes of style. They will be gestural, linguistic, and they will involve costume changes (sometimes radical and sometimes subtle, and in all but one case, on stage). As a result, the audience’s ears and eyes will be immersed in a riot of

Tim Mc Mullin as the irrepressible Costello, dressed for his Medieval incarnation.

Mitch Edwards as Buck Mulligan ‘playing’ Henry VIII, Tudor style.

historical styles, which are used to tell his own contemporary story.  A double effect is created: the action pivots oddly between the past and 1904 Dublin and the tea-room where the irreverent medicos joust with the much more sombre Bloom. Expect the unexpected: a lecture in the style of Swift on how frigidity in women is to be overcome, a race-call, a ghost story, a Sunday school lesson on chastity (not!), and a tale for tots about a first sexual experience in a laneway. The head butting of style and subject-matter is deliberate. No literary style is sacred, at the same time as Joyce stakes a claim about the sacredness of fertility, the boys roister in ways that are, well, boyish, and worse. Bloom is the unlikely hero of this strange scenario. He resists and proves the virtues of simple kindness and feeling for women.

It’s been most interesting for this Joycean to watch a Shakespearean director and experienced Shakespearean actors confront this dense and quickly-moving collision of styles. They are utterly undaunted by the language and are up for misrule and provocative behaviour, courtesy of Shakespearean comedies. They are skilled in embodying meanings, making the language fully their own. It’s a huge advantage rendering a text as rich as Oxen of the Sun, which vies with Ch. 9 (which strangely is a Shakespearean chapter) as being the most intensively literary chapter in a work that proliferates styles. It’s substantial fare: the niceties of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, and Malory’s courteous but ardent knights, and eighteenth-century wit, all sit alongside gothic ghost stories of a Walpole or Le Fanu sort. It’s a plum pudding, full of fruit which any particular auditor might apprehend utterly precisely or in a general way, and still feel (s)he’s had a rich mouthful and is as blessed as Jack Horner.

Feel welcome to join the Joyce community for another extravagant theatrical experience. It’s a short season, and it typically books out.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is Creative Director of  Bloomsday in Melbourne which generates and produces new programmes annually for Bloomsday theatre productions.