Ulysses @ 100

Love’s Bitter Mystery

A Feature Film at Rivoli Cinema: 5:00pm, 4 June, 2022 (one night only; online after that)

The Cracked Lookingglass of a poet. Caleb Whittaker as Buck Mulligan. Still from Jak Scanlon’s film.

As every schoolgirl knows (especially if she has tap shoes or a musical repertoire), the last 2.3 years have been diabolical for performing artists. They are a resilient mob, even if from time to time, a mess of (lentil) pottage becomes their sustenance. Bloomsday actors are a loyal bunch, and this year they reap a big reward for their loyalty – in the form of an enduring artefact, a film. Those who auditioned in March 2020 for a show that got half way through a rehearsal period for June 2020, then again for June 2021, for September 2021, for Feb 2022 (all impacted by serial draconian lockdowns in Melbourne – tens of thousands of flyers have made a thud in the paper rubbish bin), will be on the red carpet for a world première of a feature-film, Love’s Bitter Mystery, written by Steve Carey and directed by Carly Wilding, on 4 June at the Rivoli Cinema in Camberwell.  It will be followed by a Q&A with the creatives. One night only and streaming after that on Scene. Audience numbers at the Rivoli are limited, and our equally loyal Bloomsday community and its enablers get first dibs and many tickets have been pre-sold, so patrons are advised to get in quickly to secure tickets at the Rivoli.

Jacqueline Whiting as Nora/Eveline (in Joyce’s imagination). A still from Jak Scanlon’s film.

The film is a neo-gothic literary biopic, set in the spookily atmospheric, gloriously over-the-top, gold-boom mansion, Villa Alba (40 Walmer St., Kew). It is next door to what used to be John Wren’s mansion (which is now Burke Hall, the Jesuit prep school). Villa Alba is the perfect setting for this screenplay as it’s in a sad state of disrepair, though its foundation has worked hard for decades to reveal the treasures lying underneath its protective washes (it was a hospital during the war). These constitute superb murals in the former ballroom, and delicate stencils and gilt columns and arches throughout. For Joyceans, the gift is that it had so many gothic elements already built in – some parts are dark and gloomy, and cracks abound which can be exploited for symbolic resonance with the narrative. And this is a film that features hauntings and obsessive guilt, so being able to walk the fine line between the living and the dead is useful. In addition, and by happy coincidence, the house is made to stand for the interior of Joyce’s head, and so the fact that it was built in the year of his birth, 1882, is especially auspicious.

Encounter between the Poet and Empire outside a brothel. L to R: Toby Miller as James Joyce, Aubrey Flood and Hayden Splitt

The screenplay draws on works by Joyce’s biographers and also on his early fiction and those parts of Ulysses which feature Stephen’s relationship with his mother. It is set between April 1903 (when he was called back from Paris to Dublin for the death of his mother), with flashbacks to his youth and his loving but equivocal (they are seriously at odds over religion) relationship with her, and the narrative takes us to the point where he meets Nora Barnacle, they negotiate what’s at stake in loving someone like him, and elopes with her in October 1904.

View the Trailer for Love’s Bitter Mystery.

A feature film is new territory for Bloomsday and we were lucky to have been planning to film it as a theatre production at Villa Alba during the season. That did not happen so the Bloomsday producers (and curators of the Joyce flame) were exposed to a whole new way of turning Joyce into a different art form. We were lucky to have the young and keen film-maker, Jak Scanlon from Scene, and his obsessive and hard-working team of cinematographers on board, as well as director, Carly Wilding, who worked closely with him and with Steve to move the artefact further to the cinematic end of a spectrum of theatre into film. The film glories in its origins in theatre, but film offers a lot of subtle nuance particular to that medium. That it was a mind-scape to create falls more readily into the domain of film than stagecraft, though of course, such illusions have been created for the stage. And Carly had a fine eye for the shots she wanted, which were worked out collaboratively with the team. The Bloomsday team had to learn a whole new language of film-making, and a very different rhythm of production. The film was made in the ten-day period which would have been taken up with performance, and remarkably, stuck to Jak’s programme, coming in 10 minutes late at 1.10am on a Monday morning. 

It’s a must-see for this special season.

Leaving Dublin

yes I will Yes!

An Extravagance of Molly Blooms

L to R: Madeleine Mason, Emma Drysdale, Christina Costigan. Photography by Jody Jane Stitt and Mark Harper

A Play at The MC Showroom on Wednesday 15 – Saturday 25 June 2022

The camera dollies had only just been packed up when the Bloomsday team had to move into stage-production mode. It’s been a rocky journey: just before Christmas, we learnt that our contract with fortyfivedownstairs, our beloved theatre of choice, was closing its doors (hopefully temporarily) in June and we needed to find a new theatre. Miao Mangmang, the proprietor and herself a jazz singer and arts manager, welcomed us to The MC Showroom, a comfortable modern black-box theatre with the tech specs we needed. And it has – unwonted luxury for Bloomsday – two bars, one in the foyer and one in the theatre.

The script for Yes I will Yes!, a very free adaptation of the Molly Bloom chapter (the last one) of Ulysses, has been in-the-writing since 2020 with two talented old hands, Philip Harvey and Roz Hames, returning to the scripting team. Philip is a poet and he was keen to see if we could stage Molly’s impact on Dublin (mainly on its male population, though one imagines she has plenty of female rivals and enemies!). He was free to range widely through Joyce arcana and earlier chapters in Ulysses, and did, so that Molly emerges, as Director Carl Whiteside put it, as ‘the diva of her dreams’. So, we have a Molly that is famous/notorious as a public persona, on the stages provided by Gibraltar and Dublin. This makes for a strong contrast with the private Molly more usually on offer in Bloomsday productions, uncensored at 2-3am, thinking her own rebellious, brutally frank thoughts in bed. Indeed, this is a production that will be quite radical as an objective is to, if possible, do without a bed, and to be content with a suggestion of bed. We’ll know more on Sunday as we welcome the Designer, Hayley James, to our ranks. The second scriptwriter to rejoin us is the gifted Roz Hames. Over 25 years, we have turned to her for imaginative scripts that use contemporary up-to-the-minute dialogue, and for this production, she has brought Molly further into the c20 and right up to 1922, the date of the publication of Ulysses. She has invented three alternative future scenarios for Molly, all very different and all suggested by the text and using Joyce’s words often, and in one of them, Molly and her avatars will try out her considerable musical repertoire in Australia. Want to know what happens to Poldy and Blazes?  You must see for yourself.

It has been a tumult of a few years for Bloomsday. When we realised that rehearsals of Love’s Bitter Mystery could not continue in May 2020, we did what many Arts companies were doing – we pirouetted (fancier than pivoting!) and produced 18 short short films, one for each chapter of Ulysses. That was a fantastically energising project for the 20+ creatives who were isolating. Some lived together, but many didn’t and couldn’t meet. One of the reinforced learnings for us was just how brilliant and creative our actors are, and what digital nativism could do to advance the Joyce agenda of drawing attention to how the medium (in this case mobile phones and various forms of social media) creates and influences what can be said.  Such experimentation created a zoom-bombing priest and indeed one our films (the one by film director, Carly Wilding) starred as a nomination in Dublin’s International James Joyce Film festival of 2021. In it, she played 9 different characters and almost as many instruments and conducted herselves. It was a tour de force which amplified the syncopated poetry of the Overture to Sirens. 

If that process pointed up the multiple talents of a new performer in the person of Carly Wilding, it also signalled an apotheosis we had predicted the moment we appointed Jen Sarah Dean. She was head-hunted to be the local director for Moulin Rouge in Australia. It was Jen’s talents that brought us half a dozen wonderful productions, and shows as different as Holy Cow!  (based on the impenetrable Oxen of the Sun episode) and Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. We knew she was outstanding the moment we appointed her after an audition. Although devastated to lose her, we packed her off to Sydney to rehearse that show with joy in our hearts, knowing that we are but custodians for a short time of these talented hard-working artistes. Melbourne is fortunate to have well-trained freshly graduated actors from several acting academies on offer, and it draws actors from Queensland and Western Australia as well, and we see it as our role to pass them on and up to glory (the costumier of Holy Cow!, Rhiannon Irving, who richly deserved our high praise for her efforts went to work at the Australian Ballet the year after she made scores of costumes reflecting many different periods of literary history for us). We also lost another actor to the Sydney Theatre Company in 2021. 

This year’s new director is the very talented Carl Whiteside, veteran of 20 years of theatrical entrepreneurship, acting and directing in the UK, and he runs a highly successful travelling theatre-in-education company, Meerkat Productions. He’s galvanised by the challenges of bringing to Bloomsday’s audiences the most loved character in modern literature.

The festival will, as usual, also feature a seminar and Professor Peter Kuch plans to ‘Sherlockholmes’ (Joyce’s verb) the Blooms, while I get to talk about a subject close to my heart, what happened when feminists discovered Joyce — what they saw that the men had missed and what they celebrated.  Dinner will follow at Ines Wine Bar.

It’s a year to get your Joyce on. Bloomsday promises, as always, to demystify, and the material we’re working with will aid that process, being the most welcoming in all of Ulysses.  And there’s a third big celebration, a Joycean variety concert, planned for October, but more of that down the track….

For more information, joining the Bloomsday mailing list is easy: see the invitation at the bottom of the Home Page at http://www.bloomsdayinmelbourne.org.au

The première of Love’s Bitter Mystery is at 5pm on Saturday 4th June 2022 at Rivoli Cinema, Hawthorn East, tickets $22. Bookings at https://www.trybooking.com/BZDAK.

Tickets for the stage play, Yes I Will Yes! which runs from 15-25 June at The MC Showroom, Prahran, are available at The MC Showroom: https://www.themcshowroom.com/whatson/yes-i-will-yes

Frances Devlin-Glass is the Artistic Director of Bloomsday in Melbourne which has been making Joyce accessible to audiences since 1994. She is also a member of the Tinteán collective.