A Bloomsday Feature
Whichever way you cut it, preparing a new theatrical Bloomsday in Melbourne annually is challenging, and this year especially so. There’s never any shortage of material in James Joyce and his oeuvre, so that’s not where the challenge lies. It’s more to do with translating a densely and finely wrought literary text for the stage, and making sure it communicates.
In February 2020, Bloomsday had secured and paid the deposit for a very exciting new venue and the Director, Jen Dean, and the Bloomsday team auditioned for the cast of a new and original play. Rehearsals were due to start just before Easter and to pick up pace after that. COVID19 put a sharp, hard brake to all that. And for about a week, Bloomsday in Melbourne entertained the first break in its 27-year history. And then another idea was born – a socially distanced Bloomsday in Plaguetime Film Festival in 18 short films, one for each episode.
The film scripts needed to be written fast and furiously by a team that had never written for film. What worked on the stage wasn’t necessarily going to work on film, especially film created in social isolation. Did the script team have what it takes to do this? Joyce has a big-systems approach to representing Dublin, and a cast of thousands. Could they devise short films with no more than two (ideally) and (four at a stretch) actors in most episodes? Would they lose the sense of a crowded canvas spanning all classes and conditions of men and women in Dublin? Two films involve bigger casts – we gave ourselves licence to expand Oxen at the Maternity Hospital and Circe in Nighttown and involve a larger cast. And Max Gillies, the anchor person for the whole film festival, agreed to do Wandering Rocks in which the whole of Dublin perambulates as a series of satiric monologues in seven different characters and four hats.
Did the scripters have enough deep knowledge of the social media conventions to use them creatively and subversively? Fortunately, they took it as an axiom, a law of nature, that to do it well was to take a leaf from Joyce’s book and send up the medium of film-making, celebrity and selfie-culture. So, there immediately is another layer of complexity. The films had to be shot in social isolation on phones and Zoom. Who knew when we began working with the 20-strong team from around the world, average age of 25, that Bloom would turn out to be a persistent life-streamer, that the odd priest was likely to Zoom-bomb a perfectly peaceful and mutually consoling encounter on a beach, or that letters would need to be passed from Castlemaine to London where Bloom was filming? Or that Joyce’s documentary, list-making tendencies might result in a filmed mockumentary? Rehearsing in Zoom has inspired the visuals which are being edited artfully by actor/cinematographer Kurtis Lowden assisted by Steve Carey from Bloomsday. It helps that so many of the Bloomsday players, millennials, are canny users of social media.
As always, the Director and actors bring huge energy to Joyce’s words, and take it in directions the Joyce-buffs don’t entirely anticipate, and therein lies the joy of a deeply collaborative theatrical enterprise. Smart actors ask good questions. Can Buck be too high camp? Is Stephen at all attracted to Buck’s subversive tomfoolery or too hurt by him? How without lighting effects can we distinguish between the phantasmagorical and the real? Should the extravagant poetic interruptions to the narrative in Barney Kiernan’s pub be created by an identifiable voice (and if so, whose?) or would it be better for them to be voiced by different characters? Are these interpolations for heightened poetic effect or are they taking the mickey out of the nationalists? Why would you deliver the most intimate insights into Bloom’s consciousness in an episode (the 17th and second-last) that deliberately distances him? To what extent do gestures towards early twentieth-century costumery (remember the costume shops and costumiers are not working right now) meld with digital transfers of money and zoom-bombing? Such questions keep the whole team on its toes.
Jennifer Sarah Dean sits at the helm of a very busy and large team of creative personnel, and she directs the traffic on Zoom, in between occasional freezes, with drive, good humour and an extraordinary openness to the text. Her blooding with Bloomsday was a highly inventive theatrical recreation of Oxen of the Sun (repurposed as Holy Cow!) in 2018, much admired for its ability to cut through Joyce’s densest chapter; she followed it with many a thespian’s favourite play of all time, Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, and in 2020 is swallowing Joyce whole. But she is trained in Shakespeare and runs her own highly innovative theatre company, Melbourne Shakespeare Company. Such a background, as Joyce himself knew well, is good training in literary stagecraft. This is a director to watch.
The mechanics of the film festival are interesting: films will be first seen on FaceBook and the Bloomsday website according to Joyce’s timetable from 8am. Joyce intended two series of events (one south of the city and one mainly north of the city, with a side trip into Westland Row) to occur simultaneously at 8am, 10am and 11am. We’ve timed them half an hour apart to allow for discussion. But from noon onwards, they will be screened every hour. After 6pm, we’ve speeded Joyce’s timetable up a little as we decided we can’t wait till 3am for Molly Bloom.
Alongside the Film Festival, Bloomsday in Plaguetime, there will be a Facebook discussion thread, hosted, by one of Melbourne’s gifted Joyceans, Philip Harvey, at https://www.facebook.com/groups/bloomsday2020. It’s democratic, to allow all manner of men and women to have their say, respond to Joyce, the films and engage with one another. It’s free to join the private group on Facebook and we hope that Joyceans locally and around the world will join the craic. For those who want more, there is a Blog site on the Bloomsday website, www.bloomsdayinmelbourne.org.au, that goes a good bit deeper, designed to extend understanding (importantly without mystifying), and there’s a blog for each episode which will become available when the corresponding film is screened. It deals with the editorial processes for the films and what more is on offer in the episode from the novel which is under discussion.
Everyone is welcome to go online for Bloomsday in Plaguetime 2020 on 16 June from 8am Eastern Standard Time. If you can’t take the time out on the day, the films will remain available for viewing at your leisure and revisiting on both Facebook and the website.
Bloomsday in Plaguetime Film Festival and discussion: https://www.facebook.com/groups/bloomsday2020.