The staged performance of Ulysses at The Abbey,was pure vaudeville. It was colourful, bawdy, and humorous – perfect, it seems, for a drama adaptation of the book, not that I have read Ulysses. I am one of the playwright, Dermot Bolger’s, target audience: one of those too intimidated to read the book. However, I loved the theatre production and think Bolger was probably the right man for the job. I could almost feel his hands playing the puppets and shaking the pages so the themes would fall out midst the chaos of the chatter.
Because I haven’t read it, I cannot comment on how faithfully the play renders the book, but from what I hear about Ulysses, a faithful rendering would not work. What I loved about this performance was its stark chaos and colour. The stage set was excellent with some of the audience sitting at bar tables on the stage. The main props were Molly Bloom’s bed, a bar, and the use of grotesque corpse-like puppets to flesh out Joyce’s world – brilliant.
It was a challenge to assimilate the first fifteen minutes. I didn’t have a notion of what I was seeing before me, so it took a while to settle into the vaudeville style of the play. Soon, lines of speech, wonderful words, pieces of script were hurled around the stage, and it was a pleasure to be assaulted by their humour, vigour, and the honest reflection of humanity at its best and worst.
I found the themes to be sex, death, love, religion, nationality and drunkenness – in short, the secrets of honest human depravity. And I thought the vaudeville nature of the play worked very well. It was like watching a series of Shakespeare’s sub plots, one after another, with no real string of attachment to anything, just a passing character. I was very impressed.
Bloom and Molly Bloom were excellent – hats off and standing ovation. All the cast were good, absorbing the audience and themselves into the madness of the moments. The direction by Graham McLaren was very clever. I was a little confused by the minor role of Stephen Dedalus. I have always understood him to be one of the central characters in the book, but, I assume, Dermot Bolger wanted to reflect the themes rather than the dialogue and I am also guessing Dedalus was a foil to Bloom. I may be totally wrong. I say this because just before Molly’s final soliloquy, the other characters stood in a circle and batted questions and answers as to who did what when and Dedalus’s actions seemed to have greater significance. I am not sure this ploy worked; it felt a little like Dermot Bolger knew he had to finish it up. But, I didn’t care. All I knew that my senses had been assaulted and I had really enjoyed the production. I will have to read the book.
Going to see Ulysses was the finale of my own day out in Dublin, which, needless to say, was not as engaging as Stephen Dedalus’. My first excursion was to Michele Boyle’s exhibition in the Axis in Ballymun. I loved the portraits of her adopted parents and herself. They capture the grimace and worry through the flesh and wrinkles of the face. It is a total contrast then that the paintings of her adoptive family, brothers and sisters, are blurred in a defined but confused background. I liked the exhibition, and the Axis is a lovely community venue.
I used to work occasionally in Ballymun. It is different without the tower blocks. It doesn’t feel like it has found its own identity yet. The mix of architecture is strange; there are still sweeps of open (now burnt and brown) grass wasteland and a massive main road running it through it. There are people sauntering and sitting around, listening to big boom boxes of music and dogs pottering about, but there was a feeling of not finished, a sense interim about the place.
My next stop was to be the Seamus Heaney exhibition in the new Bank of Ireland Cultural Centre in Dublin but the tall, intimidating entrance wooden doors were firmly shut and locked by the time I got there at 3.50. I did get a quick look at the rather fabulous banking facilities when I went in to ask where the exhibition was for there was not a trace nor reference to it by the Columns where it was supposed to be, but that was little compensation, and it jarred on me that Seamus is forced to keep banking hours.
Instead, in the end, I had to repair to the Bailey Bar on Duke St to enjoy a few glasses of wine in the sunshine, and people watch. It’s a different Dublin to the place I worked twenty-five years ago, but honestly, I think the themes of Ulysses still wend their way through the inner city streets and they probably always will.