Staging 'Ulysses': 'What impressed me most was also what scared me most'

Sat, Oct 27, 2012, 01:00

DERMOT BOLGERhad to wrestle with the expansiveness of Joyce’s 265,000-word masterpiece in order to turn it into a play that would arouse audiences’ curiosity

NO TIME IS MORE dangerous for a phone call than 8pm 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 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 of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

I explained why I would never attempt this near-impossible task. I explained my reasons again over lunch, after he flew to 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 18 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 realised 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 the book’s myriad meanings. But some criticism is so abstruse as to place barriers around its being simply enjoyed as a novel. The Joycean industry seems to involve many more 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. Beginning my adaptation, I quickly realised why Joyce laughed at subtly getting under the skin and prejudices of the claustrophobic city Stephen Dedalus 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. Not only does Joyce create 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.

But a play cannot sit down and digress too overtly from its central preoccupations. Playwrights enter an unspoken pact with their audience, but also a silent duel. An audience will follow a playwright anywhere once they are being propelled forwards 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 50 plays. Gut-wrenching dramas could be conjured from something as minor as the disastrous marriage of Bloom’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 bring 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 on 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 at that time lapsed 50 years after the author’s death. But the EU, with its love of harmonisation, decided to standardise copyright law, so it continued instead for 70 years after the author’s death. The book was still in the public domain when Greg Doran directed a fascinating staged reading as the centrepiece of Philadelphia’s 1994 Bloomsday celebrations, organised by the Rosenbach Museum, which owns Joyce’s original manuscript.

Plans to stage it in London fell in limbo, however, as the EU took so long to finalise its copyright changes. All projects have a momentum. With confusion about how and when copyright law would change, the project lost its thrust. No theatre will mount a production if it is unsure of being able to restage it in the future.

My text was published in Dublin and London, and 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 on his ideas about how to stage Ulysses. I emerged with four jackets. He emerged with permission to stage my text.

IN EXTENSIVELY REVISINGit 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 Bloom’s soliloquy, a dramatically brilliant one-woman show in itself but a part of the novel that brings the danger of unbalancing any adaptation. It gave me a clue towards reimagining the book as a play, however. 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, 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 enamoured 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 than many people today see black taxi drivers as Irish. He is the sort of patriot who does essential, unglamorous things, like starting credit unions, because a nation is built not 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 remains steadfast amid 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, by Molly’s all-too-human contradictions and by 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.

Dermot Bolger is NNI commentator of the year

Ulysses is at the Mac, Belfast, as part of Belfast Festival at Queen’s, Tuesday-Thursday; Project Arts Centre, Dublin, November 6th-10th; and the Everyman theatre, Cork, November 12th-17th

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