A Magnificence, and a Mammary, of Mollys

A Theatre Review by Paul Bloom

A review of ‘yes I Will Yes!’, a play by Bloomsday in Melbourne (The MC Showroom, Prahran, 15 to 25 June 2022)

L to R: Christina Costigan (Future Molly, 1922), Madeleine Mason (Gibraltar Molly 1886), and Emma Drysdale as Eccles Molly (1904). Unless otherwise noted, photographs by Jody Jane Stitt.

What should be the collective noun for a gathering of Molly Blooms? James Joyce, writer of Ulysses and creator of Molly Bloom, would perhaps suggest a ‘Mammary of Mollys’. Granted it’s an adjective and not a noun but the author of Finnegans Wake and Episode 18 of Ulysses with 25000 unpunctuated words of monologue would hardly be troubled by incorrect parts of speech. Joyce also wouldn’t resist the pun on mammary/memory given that the so-called Penelope episode of the book is full of Molly’s memories of people, places and feelings as well as her musings on the intricacies of the male and female body, including much about mammary glands.  Apart from a brief interlude on the chamber pot, Molly speaks most of her thoughts whilst propped up in the matrimonial bed, her recently cuckolded husband sleeping toes to the pillow beside her. She flits between her adolescence in Gibraltar to courtship and married life with Leopold (Poldy) Bloom, her adulterous liaison some hours before with Hugh (Blazes) Boylan, to speculation about her future. Many readers struggle initially to work out who’s the subject of the reflection and who’s doing what to whom. As such, the monologue form presents many challenges for dramatization, complicated by the sheer magnitude and variety of Molly’s thoughts. The creative forces of the Bloomsday in Melbourne group have met those challenges magnificently in their recent production of yes I Will Yes!.

For many years now, the Bloomsday group have presented a dramatization of a selected chapter  (or an original play inspired by the novel or Joyce) each Bloomsday (16 June) with the aim of not only celebrating the text but also doing things differently and bringing Ulysses to a wider audience. For this year’s 100th anniversary of the publication of the book, the writers (Frances Devlin-Glass, Roz Hames and Philip Harvey) dispensed with the usual ‘monologue in the bed’ format – the setting is listed on the programme as ‘Molly Bloom’s Head’ rather than her bed. The stage is set with dressing tables either side, a dressing screen with cheval mirror, a piano in the opposite corner and a bench seat centre rear. Items of women’s clothing are strewn haphazardly perhaps reflecting the random nature of Molly’s thoughts. There is not a bed in sight although what happens in a bed does feature prominently throughout the play.

Gibraltar Molly disports herself with Mulvey

On to the stage come not one but three versions of Molly. We have Dublin Molly of 1904, Gibraltar Molly prior to 1886 and Future Molly of 1922, who remain together on stage for most of the production. Under the able direction of Carl Whiteside, the three actors achieve the somewhat contradictory goals of expressing their individuality at the same time as collectively reflecting the essential core of the one character. Madeleine Mason as the Gibraltar Molly captures the naivety but also the precociousness of the adolescent Molly, full of romantic ideals and yet to be bitten by harsher realities. Emma Drysdale as Dublin Molly anchors the three characters as the Molly Bloom we are most familiar with, either through reputation or our own reading. Spending considerable time in her undergarments, she encapsulates the earthiness and rejection of hypocrisy associated with Molly, together with her observations on motherhood and marriage and yearning for physical and emotional connection. She also delivers most of the dialogue that gave censors and arbiters of morality such apoplexy over the years. As the Future Molly, Christina Costigan presents three different scenarios for Molly in 1922 – back in Gibraltar boosting troop morale, pursuing a silent movie career and lastly conducting a farewell concert tour in Australia. This Molly is not just older but much wiser, a touch cynical but very much in charge.  All this might suggest that one monologue has simply been divided in three – far from it. The three Mollys often interact with each other, engage in dialogue, complete or repeat each other’s sentences and act in concert. This adds a freshness and vitality to the performances and aids in elucidation of events. (I can hear Molly in the background: ‘Elucidation – who’s he when he’s at home?’).

Luke Belle and Chris Broadstock as Dublin’s male commentary on Molly Bloom

To enhance this understanding, there are two male actors on stage playing, respectively, Leopold Bloom (Chris Broadstock) and Blazes Boylan/Stephen Dedalus (Luke Belle). They also remain on stage, mostly in the background and provide visual context in the numerous vignettes or re-enactments of events referred to by the Mollys, including appearing as representations of various male characters. The males are given minimal and at times no dialogue so the focus remains firmly on Molly. Nevertheless, Chris Broadstock capably projects the reflective and sensitive aspects of Bloom. Luke Belle needs nothing more than a straw boater and blue silk tie to channel the caddishness of Boylan. With five actors on stage, skilful lighting by Lindon Blakey directs our attention to the dominant character/s. Under the musical direction of Emma Austin, all five actors show their many talents through the songs that permeate the performance.

Future Molly plays Mol Bleu, star of the silent screen

Given Joyce’s love of cinema, it was a fitting homage to Joyce that two of the imagined scenarios for Future Molly involved the screen. The first was background newsreel footage of the Spanish Flu epidemic (how relevant) and fighting involving Spanish colonial forces with Molly offscreen as the ‘daughter of the regiment’. The second had Molly as ‘Mol Bleu’ silent screen film actress, with Future Molly as vamp, resplendent in slinky gown providing commentary on her performance. 

Dressed for their farewell concert in Bendigo. Photo by Romy Sweetnam, Costumier

In a traditional dramatization, the play would end with the final scene of the book, with Molly recalling the day when Bloom proposed and she accepted, ending with the positive note of the play’s title ‘yes, I will, Yes’. When these words were spoken, I was expecting the curtain to fall, happy to retain my romantic notion that Poldy and Molly had a chance to redeem their relationship. As such I was initially disconcerted when the writers added a final scene presented as the third future scenario, where Molly tours to Australia, with Bloom as manager and Boylan as the financial backer. The scene included flapper tunes ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ and ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’.  I quickly appreciated how apt this final scene was in its thematic consistency and its acknowledgment of Joyce’s love of all music from the opera house to the music hall.

Regarding thematic consistency, director Carl Whiteside, in his programme notes, commented on how funny the book’s monologue is and how its themes have such a modern relevance. This play is in fact bookended by such relevance. In the opening scene, we have two male observers engaging in sexist banter about Molly (today dismissed as locker room talk). In one reflection on war and violence, Molly says’ I don’t care what anybody says, it’d be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it. You wouldn’t see women going and killing one another and slaughtering.’ (too many wars come to mind). The lyrics of the closing song ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ reflect not only Molly’s desire for love but also a universal human need. It recalls the words of Leopold Bloom in his argument with the chauvinistic nationalists in the Cyclops episode: ‘That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life….Love…I mean the opposite of hatred.’

This superb production of ‘yes I Will Yes!’ reinforces Richard Ellman’s long ago opinion that ‘We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries’.       

 Paul Bloom

Apart from careers in law and education, Paul has been a student, taxi driver, bookmaker’s clerk, racecourse teleprinter operator, cleaner, porter, pool hall manager, tutor, hospital clerk, rugby club poet in residence, unreliable narrator, barfly, tour entrepreneur, amateur performer, public servant, traveller and, to quote James Joyce, he is ‘at present, a praiser of his own past’.