The Smallest of Worlds

James Joyce (Adapted by Dermot Bolger): Ulysses, Abbey Theatre, Dublin (Director: Graham McLaren)

By Sascha Krieger

This summer, Dublin’s two major theatres are diving into the collective identity of Ireland’s capital city. While the Gate has a somewhat harmless stab at one of the most popular expressions of modern, post-Church-state Ireland with Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper, the Abbey, traditionally the space for discussions about and definition of Irish identity, takes on the book that put Dublin on the map, in literature and the mind of the world, and has influenced the way the city is looked at ever since: James Joyce’s Ulysees. Even so, its Dublin-ness might not be the key aspect of this mammoth of a novel: the way it has revolutionised story-telling, the way it presents the world through streams and puddles and rivers of consciousness, unconsciousness and fantasy, the way it represents a fragmented, non-objective perception of reality has radically changed this very perception and collective awareness of it. And literature, too, for that matter. A theatre adaptation naturally has to make choices, cannot do justice to the novel’s achievements in their entirety. But even with this caveat, Dermot Bolger’s adapation and Graham McLaren’s production leave much to be desired. Way too much, to be honest.

Image: Ros Kavanagh

Talking about collective identity: via its setting, the production seems to take this aspect seriously. The stage (design: McLaren) is set in the middle of the auditorium. The audience isn’t only sit on either side of it but right on it as well, placed on tables also used by the characters. However, this communal feeling, this idea of being right there in the middle of this, part of the experience, this strange journey through human longing and suffering and being lost in the confusion of existence, disappears quickly. It is little more than a ploy, a gimmick, as so much in this production. Which plows through all 18 chapters of the book – considering its duration of a little over two hours, there is hardly even room to sketch them. Bolger’s adaptation focuses on the anecdotal, the quirky, the humorous. It is full of the book’s vulgar, physical, sexual humour while it reduces the philosophical and existential musings, the frantic search for a place in this world and a perspective on the idea of reality to a bare minimum. Thus it is a mildly entertaining parade of curious scenes, miniatures of absurdity, little more than a collection of more or less engaging anecdotes.

Nothing too dangerous though. Stephen’s (Donal Gallery plays him as a rather bland lost boy) existential confusion quickly dissolves into a harmless drinking binge, Molly’s (too soap-operaish: Janet Moran) stream of consciousness is reconstructed and fragmented into easily consumable appetizers of monologue, losing all of the intrigue of a half-conscous mind’s ramblings, while Bloom (David Pearse) is a good-natured, decent, quietly stubborn man who embodies reason as opposed to the high-flying hubris of the intellectual (which seems not a good thing in this production) Stephen. The triumph of the harmless pétit bourgeois. McLaren tries to translate the wild array of forms of narration and expression the novel assembles into an eclectic mix of theatrical genres and modes: there’s farce and puppetry, gothic ghost play and naturalism, a sermon and a radio address, slapstick and even a musical section depicting the flamboyant and simplistically clichéd Blazes Boylan (Stephen Jones). The whole thing can be interpreted as a dream – it begins and ends with Molly in bed and Bloom coming home – which would fit with the rapid scene changes on the stage that between a bed, a piano and a bar, can mean any of the real or unreal settings of the book. The undecidedness relating to the adaptation’s perspective on the existence of an objective reality quickly makes the question whether we#re in a dream obsolete. Instead, McLaren (and Bolger) seem to be looking for a fitting theatrical style for every scene while completely losing sight of where the whole thing is going to go or what it might even mean.

Image: Ros Kavanagh

Some of these translations are uninspired – Molly’s monologue of longing can be touching but soon fades into the staleness of a bargain novel – others are downright disastrous: the violent anti-semitic nationalism of the Citizen is reduced to quirky idiocy by its clownish puppetry, the appearance of the dead (the Blooms‘ son, Stephen’s mother) is cheap ghost play, the catechism of the „Ithaca“ chapter is translated into a Q&A dialogue. The entire purpose of the exercise is, it seems, targeted at Bolger’s ideal audience as he states in the programme: people who always wanted to read Ulysses but felt daunted“. For them, Bolger and McLaren cut up the novel into easily digestible snack, tasty enough, but not too heavy. The price for this is high: two-dimensional quickly drawn and clearly defined characters, lacking any of the blurred edges modernism discovered in the idea of the individual; a complete abandoning of the world-creating power of language which is at the heart of the book; a sidelining of the existential and philosophical questions it is so full of; reducing the questioning of reality to a narrative device designed to keep the audience engaged. What remains is a collection of miniature that aim at being panoramic but are little more than anecdotal. Even the aspect of a portrait of a society and/or a city is abandoned in favour of well-executed individual numbers. This Ulysses is more a variety show than a play, a piece of light entertainment than an attempt to bring one of the greatest and most influential works of literature to the stage. Instead it makes this book so small that it is doubtful many viewers will even want to read it.

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