Dublin Theatre Festival 2017: Ulysses
Yes To Say Yes Again Yes
A Dubliner with a passion for literature. A celebrated novelist. A playwright, poet and short story writer. An artist with a healthy disrespect for the establishment, who can sometimes become a part of the establishment. No wonder Dermot Bolger is the ideal candidate to adapt James Joyce’s tumultuous classic “Ulysses” for the stage. Something Bolger does with great success, in a stirring production that is both fresh and invigorating, and the perfect introduction to Joyce’s often daunting, Dublin classic. A visceral “Ulysses” made unforgettably enjoyable in a phenomenal production by designer, and director, Graham McLaren.
In the same way Joyce showed both a huge respect for, and a healthy irreverence of, Homer’s Odyssey, taking as much, or as little, as suited his needs, Bolger has taken much the same approach to Joyce’s great masterpiece, a work with its head firmly in its intellectual clouds, and its heart firmly in its boisterous characters. Bolger makes some key decisions, understanding that, given the limited amount of stage time available, “Ulysses” cannot be all things to all people. In the battle between the head and the heart, the heart wins out as Bolger decides Hamlet, and all other overt and domineering literary allusions, be damned. Or at least played down and moved gently to one side. For Bolger, “Ulysses’s" story, and deeply human characters, that often get lost amidst the academic clamour for literary analysis, have a potent, and important, story to tell. One in which, at its core, lies a son in search of a father, and a father in search of a son, even if it’s the mother who has the last word on that momentous day of June 16th, 1904.
With the mind playing second fiddle to the body, Bolger’s “Ulysses” embarks on a relentless journey that never slackens for a moment. Beginning at the end and cleverly weaving Molly Bloom’s monologue throughout, as a thread to link Joyce’s fractured narrative, Bolger begins with the great lady herself, superbly realized by Janet Moran. Fleshy and fiery, Molly kicks off the tale of a cuckolded husband, an isolated scholar, and a cast of Dubliners whose lives interweave in the course of a single day. Laughing and lying, begging and borrowing, arguing and assisting, cheating and chancing, negotiating with ghosts and indulging in whatever sexual fantasy, fetish or fortuitous opportunity that happens to be available, “Ulysses” sets off on a raucous, raunchy, rambunctious ride. As it does, it puts Dublin on display, past and present, scrutinising warts and all. Its vanities, racism, pettiness, desires, hopes, dreams, showing the best and the worst, asking questions as relevant today as they were almost a century ago when “Ulysses” first appeared.
Directed and designed by Graham McLaren, “Ulysses” delivers an astonishingly rich and ravishing production. Resembling a music hall, or an episode of The Good Old Days at times, with piano player, sing songs, puppets and petticoats, McLaren places the audience both on stage with the cast, and seated on either side of the performance space. The communal surround embracing the space releases, and increases, the vibrancy at the heart of this production. Like Bolger, McLaren makes key decisions but never plays it safe. Tracksuits and televangelists challenge safely situating “Ulysses” in the distant past, holding up its Anti-Semitic racism, and anti-immigration overtones, directly in front of the mirror. Clever use of a radio show, and a Punch and Judy styled puppet show, allow some lengthy passages to be delivered in an irresistibly engaging fashion.
If McLaren’s direction and design are outstanding, his superlative ensemble are irresistibly so. Bryan Burroughs as Lenehan, and Donal Gallery as Stephen Dedalus are both terrific, with both actors also undertaking a range of additional roles. As do several other cast members including Gareth Lombard, unforgettable as the repellantly seductive ladies man, Blazes Boylan, and Raymond Keane as Simon Dedalus, who also turns in a cart load of stunning performances right across the board. David Pearse’s Leopold Bloom, and Janet Moran’s Molly Bloom, forming the emotional, hilarious and heartbreaking core around which “Ulysses” revolves, both turn in exceptional performances, revealing hidden connections between this iconic husband and wife, lost in grief, looking for a way back, or out, or forward. Rounding out this first class ensemble, Faoileann Cunningham, making her Abbey debut as Gerty, as well as a host of additional characters, is terrific throughout. As is Caitríona Ennis, turning in a series of formidable performances as Milly and a veritable cast of thousands, confirming Ennis as a star in the making.
If Bolger has wisely side stepped the high-falutin’ in favour of a more accessible “Ulysses”, this is not to say his “Ulysses” is entry-level material. It is far, far more than that, even if it is an excellent place to start engaging with the beast that is “Ulysses.” Rowdy, raunchy and rambunctious, “Ulysses” is an irresistible production, one revealing the epic in the everyday and making this epic accessible to everyone. A production that throws its arms wide open and bids everyone welcome. Earthy, lusty, glorious, “Ulysses” is a tour de force.
“Ulysses” by James Joyce, adapted for the stage by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren, runs at The Abbey Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2017 until October 28th