A Concert/Theatre Review by Belinda Dale and Margaret Newman
Bloomsday in Melbourne, Love’s Old Sweet Songs, An Irish Variety Concert from the James Joyce Songbook, Hawthorn Arts Centre, 8 October 2022
Love’s Old Sweet Songs – an Irish Variety Concert from the James Joyce Songbook was ‘the final trumpet blast of a suite of events held in Melbourne to celebrate the centenary of the publication of Ulysses by James Joyce’. What a blast it proved to be – raucous, rambunctious, riotous and sometimes irreverent (but never really rude –Jimmy Aherne, one of the Tatty Tenors commented that this performance was less rude and bawdy compared to other Bloomsday events in which he had performed). As well as the comic, there were moments of reverence, reflection, solemnity and serenity. It was funny, sad, mad, and glad (but never bad). It was truly an Irish Variety Concert – with full music hall character and variety – demonstrating the depth, diversity and drama of Joyce’s use of music in his works. All performers were professional singers/actors – a blend of young and old, known and new. Theatre direction was by Tref Gare and musical direction by Mary O’Driscoll. Holding the show together, the grand master and MC, Tref Gare, whose racy and rapid repartee rose so high it all but blew his top right off. Had Joyce returned from the dead, as a drunken Stephen Dedalus on a high, conducting his own show?
As we entered the doors of the Hawthorn Town Hall, a Dublinesque musical soundscape surrounded us with nursery rhyme medley, chants, and ripostes – as if an orchestra were warming up. The elaborate heritage décor of the venue and Romy Sweetnam’s costumes transported us back in time, to the early twentieth century. Our walk down the aisle was a meander along the streets of Dublin in 1904 where we were accosted by pretty maids prostituting their wares (programmes) and haunted and taunted by sounds and scraps of hymns from an imagined church above (sung by the Tatty Tenors) and all around the ribaldry, rudery and prudery of street life below, aided and abetted by the cast mingling with the audience. The Tatty Tenors’ sanctimonious rendering of ‘Tantum Ergo’ (high church music) was interrupted by a rowdy antagonistic street gang hurling chanted sectarian insults at one another.
The cast was led by the magnificent and maleficent MC, who, in true music hall style got us all wound up and raring to go for the opening of the show, a musical eisteddfod – a turning point / ‘tuning fork’ in the road in Joyce’s life. The opening sequence celebrated the Feis Ceoil of 1904 in which the mad MC morphed (time-travelling back and forth) into Luigi Denza (composer of ‘Funiculi Funicula’ and real-life 1904 Feis adjudicator) and introduced two magnificent young sopranos (one additionally playing harp), and an awkward and anxious young Joyce. After refusing to sing a simple sight-reading test, Joyce had a tantrum and failed to win the medal, and ultimately turned his back on a career as a singer under the control of agents, MCs and a fickle audience. Was he not ready? Was it not for him? Although Joyce did not actually sing ‘The Croppy Boy’ at the Feis Ceoil of 1904, it struck us that he was singing about his own life (losing his mother – his father turning against him). This sad song of loss and war, sung clutching his sleeve cuffs or, nervously, his folded cap, evoked the character of the young, tortured Joyce. It set the scene for the rest of the show – how will he develop – where will he go? The life of a concert tenor was not for him – but it was what his wife Nora wanted for him. The rigours of a musical career are explored in how he presents Molly in Ulysses. Joyce instead went on to write a masterful medley of works, alluding not just to music but all the arts and sciences, about life in Dublin in 1904 and of life everywhere, forevermore to be remembered as one of the best writers ever.
Did the songs sung by the sopranos, ‘The Harp that Once Through Tara’s Halls’ and ‘The Last Rose of Summer’, represent Molly’s feared imminent decline, both of her singing career and her love for Bloom? Two musical interruptions by the Tatty Tenors (‘Funiculi Funicula’ and the ‘Kerry Dance’) lampooned eccentric maestros, providing light relief and a change of tempo.
Carly Wilding’s sweet song version of the ‘Harp that Once’ morphed into a harp version with looping, soul-quieting mysterious electronic effects – so etherial. It was too short. Like the adjudicator, this listener was captured by her demure, warm-toned performance. When the first-place medal was ceded to her, there was some hilarious physical comedy – sexual balderdash between her and the adjudicator as she rebuffed his amorous advances using the harp as a defensive instrument, with the medal hanging off the corner of her shoulder-borne harp.
Having delivered melancholy as Joyce, Torsten Strokirch, transformed (the magic of theatre) into an eros-charged Blazes Boylan/Don Giovanni, leaping onto the stage for his hot derring-do seduction of Molly in Mozart’s ‘La ci Darem’. Bloom (Chris Broadstock) watched on bewildered as they soared, driven by desires, through the sensuous to the salacious, and, as his anguish increased, he visibly moved through many stages of grief before an inevitable, reluctant acceptance of the reality of their affair. Merryn Hughes’s voice was exquisitely assured. In the duet, they were backed by a piano accompaniment from Mary O’Driscoll intimately paced to her singers’ vocals and movement. This permitted the singers a range of gorgeous romantic poses and posturings. The Don overcame Zerlina’s/Molly’s scruples and the pair disappeared amid appreciative hubbub, down the centre aisle, suggesting nothing less than an imminent elopement.
The Rehearsal scenario opened with ‘Love’s Old Sweet Song’ sung by Bloom (Chris Broadstock) and Molly (Merryn Hughes), now drifting into middle age, drifting slightly apart, touching, then not touching – music, it seems, had united them in the past.
As Jimmy Aherne sang ‘M’appari’ slowly and sorrowfully (in the role of Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father) at the sinking end of his singing career, we could feel both Simon’s loss of his wife (by death) and Bloom’s of his (through adultery): ‘I am lost, yes I am lost for she is gone … Return …Come to me’. Carefully, tenderly, sorrowfully he led us from the potential of his purest of love to its tragic abandonment of him, his own heart disappearing with her. It was moving. It was admirable.
Will Bloom’s love return? Those of us who have read Ulysses think we know. Yes. Yes, yes we do.
After the interval, and all the sorrow and sadness, we needed fun and frivolity and, with the help of the Tatty Tenors, we got it with a medley of ballads and popular songs. True to their name, the Tatty Tenors were indeed fitly messy, tawdry and bawdy, and that’s part of their fame. With fine-tuning and tone they can engender the tender, tremulous and tempestuous all in one breath. They continued to regale us with their musical mayhem at the pub where many of us adjourned for dinner – and where we tried to remember (or not) all the references to songs and music in works by Joyce.
A dazzling array of comic effects were performed by the Music Hall compère, Tref Gare, in tune with the Tatties. Looking extravagant and dressy in a top hat and tails, colourful waistcoat, and silver-tipped walking cane, he mimicked (using an unusual lip sync to create musical effects) a horizontal flute and a trombone. In addition, deft gestures, dance moves, and fluency of intonation with heavy-duty, polysyllabic, alliterative language created the style of Victorian Variety. Some will remember him from Travesties (2019).
The Music Hall pieces after the interval further upped the tempo: ‘Sally in our Alley’, ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’ and ‘Seaside Girls’. The audience was included in the bonhomie by the MC and joined the Tattys’ chorus in ‘Sally in our Alley’.
Their Tattys’ Variety performance had a faux-solemn ending: Ralph Devlin, all courage, sang Sir Arthur Sullivan’s ‘The Lost Chord’. This version of the elegy attempted to encompass its grief, but continually and comically was overwhelmed by it. Each time he was cajoled and comforted by his trio’s two mates, who sustained him, physically and emotionally, for a bravura finale! Most grand and impressive and different from the kind of music I associate with Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame – we had earlier enjoyed ‘Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes’ from The Gondoliers).
Finally, the cast assembled for a reprise of ‘Love’s Old Sweet Song’, a very fitting finale, a book-ending, to celebrate the culmination of the centenary of Ulysses – Yes, Yes, Yes!
Belinda Dale and Margaret Newman have been reading Joyce’s fiction for several years (at U3A Melbourne City). Belinda is particularly interested in how Joyce uses place and space, and Margaret has a special interest in music and poetry.