Why adapt Ulysses – James Joyce’s towering, modernist tome – for the stage? The episodic adventures of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus set on mundane 16 June 1904 don’t have the compactness or narrative spark of Dubliners or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ultimately, the statement of any adaptation will be judged by how it gives theatrical expression to the inexhaustible, swaggering stream-of-consciousness technique that dominates the novel.
As Gerry Farrell walks onstage wearing a Joyce boater hat and glasses, we hope he’ll appease more than the ceremony befitting the annual Bloomsday celebration. As the title suggests, Blooming Ulysses focuses on Leopold’s journey: making breakfast for his scornful wife Molly, attending the funeral of his friend Paddy Dignam, and finally fending off the nationalistic belligerence of the Citizen in Barney Kiernan’s pub (the later adventures with Dedalus are part of an extended version of the performance).
We begin with the babbling domestic science of Bloom, tracing his house’s water supply from the reservoir, charting a wider economy within the miniscule task of boiling the kettle. The verbose examination makes for a good ten minutes before a drop of tea is made but Farrell is lively in his delivery. He shows interesting tension in the language with occasional word-seizures that can break extremely from certainty, much in the novel’s modernist spirit.
It’s nervy to apply Joyce’s scrutiny of Bloom’s bowel movements (everyone’s got to go sometime) to the digesting lunchtime audience. However, the vulgarity that made the work contentious when first published doesn’t seem to be the draw for Farrell. While he sits congenially behind a neat sheet of metal, suggesting the walls of an outhouse, we sense that Joyce’s daring grime and smut isn’t to be embraced.
He’s more successful at serving the author’s satire, sending-up the Church by impersonating a droning priest and swinging the hips of a prostitute claiming to be reformed: “Hold me now, Lord!”. The nationalist eccentricities of the Citizen are also well played, adding outrage to his xenophobic bigotry.
The performance does constantly struggle to sustain though, mostly because there’s no sense of consequence. You’d wonder why Farrell doesn’t tap into the emotional crises that drive Bloom into cosmic loneliness: the infidelity of his wife and his bereavement at losing his father and son. Furthermore, without making use of qualities that make Ulysses a phenomenon – its provocative powers, the fascinating code of local and mythological references – the event falls flat.
A simple illustration of a text, especially one so radical, is not enough. If a literary event causes a storm, its theatrical adaptation should strive to be bold. Rather, this interpretation fits more the light rosy fare of café theatre (a description not typical of the programming at Bewley’s, which only a few weeks ago hosted Noni Stapleton’s macabre and lustful drama Charolais). On this occasion, Joyce’s masterpiece fails to blossom.
Blooming Ulysses is playing at Bewley’s Café Theatre until 20 June. For tickets and more information, see the Bewley’s Café Theatre website.