ULYSSES by James Joyce
Adapted for the stage by Dermot Bolger


This new version of Dermot Bolger's 1994 adaptation of Ulysses (originally called A Dublin Bloom) was staged in 2012, to mark Joyce's work coming into the public domain, by The Tron Theatre, Glasgow in in association with the Project Art Centre, Dublin and the Everyman Palace, Cork. It was directed by Andy Arnold, with Muireann Kelly as Molly and Jean-Paul an Cauwelaert as Bloom. It also starred Stephen Clyde, Michael Dylan, Maeve Fitzgerald, Mary Murray, Paul Riley and Grant Smeaton, with a set design by Charlotte Lane.

'I am a fool perhaps. Boylan gets the plums and I the plum stones. My youth. Never again. Gibraltar. Evenings like this looking out over the sea, she told me, but clear, no clouds. Said she always thought she'd marry a lord or a gentleman with a private yacht. Why me?'

While his wife Molly waits in bed for the infamous Blazes Boylan, Leopold Bloom is in Dublin conversing in pubs, graveyards, press rooms, brothels... and then home. Adapted for stage by celebrated author and Dublin chronicler Dermot Bolger, Ulysses is bawdy, hilarious and affecting, and celebrates Joyce's genius for depicting life in all its profundity.


The Scotsman
Published on Friday 19 October 2012 00:00
Tron, Glasgow
Star rating: * * * *

"RICH, strange, uneven, complex, imperfect, foul, beautiful and absolutely charged with the glorious and terrible pulse of life: this is Andy Arnold's new stage version of James Joyce's Ulysses, built round a text first written almost 20 years ago by the great Irish novelist and playwright Dermot Bolger, but now given its first full production by the Tron Theatre, along with the Everyman in Cork and the Project Arts Centre in Dublin.

It's completely impossible, of course, to do full justice to Joyce's mighty quarter-million-word novel in a two-and-a-half-hour stage show. The act of selection has to be fierce and brutal, and Bolger's vision of the events of 16 June, 1904 - when Leopold Bloom sets off on his strange odyssey around the streets, strands, bars and dimly-lit whorehouses of Edwardian Dublin - is not the same, in balance or mood, as Joyce's. His Bloom, poignantly played by Jean-Paul Van Cauwelaert, seems a lonelier man, less surrounded by drinking companions and more vulnerable to anti-semitic attack and to horrific scenes of sexual nightmare than Joyce's original character.

At the centre of it all, though, there's Muirean Kelly's dazzling Molly Bloom, sprawled on her big brass bed at the heart of Charlotte Lane's beautiful set. For if Bloom is the traveller in the story, Molly is the life-force that he both seeks and runs from, a woman who asserts the power of her desire with a force that remains almost as revolutionary today as it was a century ago.

And when this stage version of Ulysses focuses on the rhythm of Joyce's own poetry, in Bloom's long walk home with Stephen Dedalus towards the big bed where Molly waits and speaks - then, yes, this is a piece of theatre to remember, as rich and glorious as an old scratched ruby, lying at the bottom of some infinitely cluttered drawer."

Irish Theatre Magazine, Nov 1st, 2012 by Terence Blain:

How do you solve a problem like Ulysses? Dermot Bolger must have asked himself the question a thousand times in the two decades which have elapsed since he made his first tilt at producing a stage version of Joyce's great novel, to the Tron Theatre production of his revised adaptation which had its Irish premiere at this year's Belfast Festival at Queen's.

Bolger's 1994 Ulysses had just a single staged reading in Philadelphia, before revisions to EU copyright law effectively de-barred further presentations of the work in Europe. Bolger's script, though published, lay moth-balled till the definitive lifting of Joyce copyright earlier this year, when Tron Theatre's artistic director Andy Arnold pounced at the opportunity to produce it.

Was it worth the wait? With due deference to those who will inevitably argue that Ulysses is textually sacrosanct, and shouldn't be tampered with in any way whatsoever (Bolger himself acknowledges that "experts won't like it"), the answer is a resoundingly Joycean yes. Those who don't know the novel at all will see a vibrantly imaginative piece of theatre to whet their appetite; those who know it a little, or find it difficult, will have its major contours and leading narratives etched out with stimulating clarity; and those who know it well will, almost certainly, find many fresh epiphanies to relish, not least the exquisite pleasures afforded by hearing Joyce's wonderfully allusive, sharply anarchic language (Bolger excises directly from the novel, with no alterations) voiced so evocatively by Arnold's unbelievably hard-working team of eight ensemble actors.

With eighty different characters flickering in and out of the onstage action, it's unsurprising that accents occasionally slip into anonymity, the actors battling to clearly differentiate Joyce's dazzling procession of loquacious Dubliners one from the other.

There's no such difficulty, however, with the principal characters, particularly that of Molly Bloom, played by the redoubtable Muireann Kelly. Soft, cheeky, sensual, sharp-tongued, voluptuous, wise and witty, Kelly's Molly is an endearingly warm, lived-in assumption of the part. Her famous closing monologue (radically foreshortened by Bolger, for dramatic purposes) is beautifully delivered, modulating almost imperceptibly from rambling conversationalism, through shafts of introspection, to the enraptured final moments, when she recalls Bloom's marriage proposal, and eventually accepts it.

Compared to Kelly's Molly, the Bloom of Jean-Paul Van Cauwelaert is a gentler, more softly-spoken creature, as he is in Joyce's novel. Cauwelaert's personation of the belaboured cuckold catches neatly the vein of philosophic resignation running deep in Bloom's nature, the essential benignity and compassion which Joyce valued so highly in the character. He's also good at suggesting, in light-touch fashion, those crucial elements of difference in Bloom's personality - his Jewishness, his twitching intellectual curiosity - which mark him out from the gruffer, more earthy Dubliners in Joyce's narrative, and hold him necessarily aloof from them.

Among the other actors Stephen Clyde makes a particularly sharp impression as Molly's raffish concert agent Blazes Boylan, usurper of Bloom's marital bed. Maeve Fitzgerald and Mary Murray, meanwhile, multi-task heroically as a gaggle of vividly realised male and female characters (seventeen at least, I counted). Goodness knows how they remembered where the next cue was coming from.

Charlotte Lane's set is built upon a raised, circular dais, using a semi-circular configuration of Victorian furnishings (bookshelves, cabinets, tables) at the rear to suggest the switching locations (bedroom, office, bar, street-corner, water closet) of the narrative. It looks wall-like, but gradually you become aware of little gaps and interstices where characters (or their faces) appear suddenly to make brief comments or interjections. That's typical of the production's visual resourcefulness: director Andy Arnold blocks the actors with seasoned economy, props are minimal to keep the restricted playing area decluttered, and Sergey Jakovsky's soft-focus light designs add subtly evocative colourations to the different times of day and locations.

Two things, above all, come over very clearly in Andy Arnold's production. One is the extraordinarily encompassing nature of Joyce's vision of the city-life he re-created in Ulysses: the staging, like the book, teems with variousness, and bristles with the sheer delight which Joyce, like Dickens, took in observing at close quarters the foibles and confabulations of everyday human existence. For both authors, such observations were a constantly renewing, life-enhancing experience, and that feeling emanates glowingly from Tron Theatre's presentation.

The other is the humour of Joyce's writing. We know it's there, of course, mischievously stalking its way through virtually every page of the novel. Hearing it aloud, though, is different - the lilt, the droll half-emphasis, the knowing lean upon a particular syllable or consonant. Arnold points these things up tellingly with his actors, who don't milk the text unduly, but regularly set it loose to work its comic magic.

Joyce's partner Nora regularly complained of being kept awake at night by her husband laughing loudly as he worked on Ulysses, creating the gallery of characters who have since become fictional immortals. Dermot Bolger and Andy Arnold understand that laughter, and give a generous measure of it back to audiences in this funny, touching, provocative, and stimulating production."

An essay by Dermot Bolger

No time is more dangerous for a phone call than eight pm on a Monday when your thoughts are tuned to nothing more daunting than the dinner dishes. If your phone rings, never answer it: it's invariably somebody asking you to do something you don't want to do.

One Monday evening in 1993 the highly respected English theatre director, Greg Doran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, phoned to say that he had recently staged Derek Walcott's acclaimed version of The Odyssey and wanted to follow it with a stage version James Joyce's masterpiece Ulysses.

I explained why I would never attempt this near impossible task. I explained my reasons again over lunch, after he flew into Dublin to see me. I was still explaining why I wouldn't consider it when - in one of those metamorphoses that occur between the main course and coffee - I started drawing diagrams on my napkins to show how it might be staged.

As Greg departed for London, I stood outside the restaurant, feeling palpable terror, because in explaining how it couldn't be done, I had somehow agreed to transpose Joyce's masterpiece of 265,000 words - in eighteen episodes, alternating through a dazzling array of linguistic styles - into a play, due to have a staged reading in a 1,300 seat Philadelphia theatre the following Bloomsday.

Then I realized that my terror at approaching it as a playwright reflected the terror many readers feel at approaching it as a book. Ulysses has a deserved mystique. Nobody could call it an easy read. Joyce joked about wanting to keep critics busy for centuries. Ninety years on, he remains on track, with an industry surrounding the book. Much of what is written laudably attempts to open up then book's myriad meanings. But some criticism is so abstruse as to place barriers around it being simply enjoyed as a novel. The Joycean industry seems to involve more many faction fights than occurred between 18th century rival gangs of butchers' apprentices in Finglas Woods.

I took as my starting point a complaint by Nora Barnacle - Joyce's great love - that he kept her awake at night, laughing so much as he wrote it. Starting my adaptation, I quickly realized why Joyce laughed at subtly getting under the skin and prejudices of the claustrophobic city Stephen knows he must escape from. The writing teems with brilliance and virtuosity, but also with deep humanity and insights into the human condition that remain as true today as in 1904.

What impressed me most as a reader was what scared me most as a playwright. Joyce not only creates remarkable characters in all their contradictions, but his book expands to encompass the physical and psychological backdrop of an entire city. Ulysses could be said to be devoid of minor characters, because he brilliantly conjures entire lives for people who appear only fleetingly.

Such expansiveness is the privilege of fiction: secondary worlds can be explored that are not pivotal to the narrative, but inform it by being the common bedrock from which the characters spring.

However a play cannot sit down and digress too overtly from its central preoccupations. Playwrights enter into an unspoken pact with their audience, but also a silent duel. An audience will follow a playwright anywhere, once they are being propelled forward by the engine of curiosity. If they get ahead of the playwright, the spell is punctured. The taut sting precariously holding a play afloat loses its tension and all drama dies.

One difficulty for a playwright is that Ulysses could expand into fifty plays. Gut-wrenching dramas could be conjured from something as minor as the disastrous marriage of Blood's former belle, Josie Breen or the entangled, delusional life of Bloom's clandestine erotic correspondent, Martha Clifford.

I needed to cut to the dynamic of the two journeys that eventually being together a cuckolded and ridiculed older man (who has lost his son but never loses his humanity and intellectual curiosity) and a young man estranged from his own father, intent of true independence by refusing to let any boundary limit his intellectual freedom.

No playwright could ever match the expanse of Joyce's vision. I could only go where my curiosity led me, hoping that the relationships that most fascinated me might intrigue other people.

In 1993 the book was out of copyright, which then lapsed fifty years after the author's death. But the EU - with its love of harmonization - decided to standardize copyright law, making it seventy years from the author's death. The book was still in the public domain when Greg Doran directed a fascinating staged reading as the centerpiece of Philadelphia's 1994 Bloomsday celebrations, organized by the Rosenbach Museum who own Joyce's original manuscript.

However plans to stage it in London fell in limbo as the EU took so long to finalize its copyright changes. All projects have a momentum. With confusion about how and when copyright law would change, the project lost its momentum. No theatre will mount a production if unsure that they can restage it in the future.

My text was published in Dublin and London but although occasional interest arose, it might have remained forgotten if Andy Arnold - artistic director of Glasgow's famously vibrant Tron Theatre - had not happened to hear me being interviewed by Marian Finucane. He was searching for someone willing to adapt Ulysses, and was astonished to discover that a version already existed.

He flew to Dublin to meet me on the afternoon I do my annual clothes shopping at a trade sale in a Finglas warehouse. He proffered opinions on my terrible dress sense and I proffered opinions of his ideas about how to stage Ulysses. I emerged with four jackets. He emerged with permission to stage my text.

In extensively revising it over the past year, what I found astonishing was how many aspects of the book remained contemporary, still brimming with the voices and skewed opinions of my city.

An immediate theatrical problem was Molly's soliloquy - a dramatically brilliant one woman show in itself - but in danger of unbalancing any adaptation. But it gave me a clue towards reimagining the book as a play.

What if I started at the end: with Bloom getting into bed beside Molly and falling asleep? He could then be led back through the day's events in his sleep, by characters who change, literally at the drop of a hat, to instantaneously transport him to different locations within the illogical logic of a dream.

Therefore "real time" is when Bloom sleeps and Molly is agitated by her torrent of thoughts. This allows her soliloquy to wind in and out of the play, breaking up (and retrospectively speculating upon) the episodes her sleeping husband relives.

I first read Ulysses as a schoolboy too young to understand Bloom. When I first adapted it he was still slightly older than me - 38 to my 36. Revising it now, aged 53; I was envious of his relative youth and even more enamored by his humanity and steadfastness in clinging to his principles amid such public ridicule. One by one he hunts down and slays his dragons in ways so subtle they barely notice his victories.

For decades Dubliners argued over whose statue should replace Nelson's pillar. I love that the Spire commemorates no self-appointed hero, because - as Francis Stuart once wrote: "the great are not great now, the good are not good." The Spire is where young people meet: as a site of friendships made and farewells taken, it becomes the commemorative backdrop to everyone's life. But if I could pick an inscription for it, I would pick Bloom's words to Stephen in the cabman's shelter, when they amiably agree to disagree about life.

Bloom says: "I resent violence or intolerance in any shape or form. A revolution must come on the due instalments plan. All these wretched quarrels, supposed to be about honour and flags. It's money at the back of everything, greed and jealousy."

Bloom strikes me as a different type of Irish patriot - even if the drinkers in Barney Kiernan's pub no more saw him as truly Irish that many people today see black taxi drivers as Irish. He the sort of patriots who does essential, unglamorous things, like starting credit unions, because a nation is not built by stunts but by the due instalments plan.

As a writer I'm proud to share the same city as Joyce. As a citizen I'm also proud to share the same city as Bloom - that cuckolded husband, that lecher after shapely ankles, that father carrying bereavement in his heart, that son who understands the silent taboo of suicide, that lowly advertisement agent, regularly sacked because of his opinions, who suffers humiliations but remain steadfast amidst his contradictions.

I don't know what Joyce experts will make of my adaptation - though I think anyone would love the sweeping theatricality Andy Arnold brings to the Tron's production. But my ideal audience is people who always wanted to read the book but felt daunted. They may be surprised to find that it remains a book about themselves and people they know. They will not leave knowing everything about Joyce, no more than I'll ever comprehend the fullness of his vision. But I hope they are sufficient engaged by the human drama; by Bloom's subtle triumphs; Molly's all too human contradictions and Stephen's isolation on the eve of departure, to again start to read this superb chronicle of our capital city: one of the greatest and truest novels of all time.

*This article first appeared in The Irish Times

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