Joyce’s Ulysses at the Dublin Theatre Festival

I have always been sceptical of adaptations of novels for the stage and, in my experience, the greater the novel the less likely its success in this format. Having said that, one of the most impressive of my early theatre experiences was a Bristol Old Vic production of War and Peace, directed by Val May.  I think this was because the main elements of the plot were presented in bold, simple outlines and visually much was stylised. At Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Graham McLaren’s production of Ulysses also opted for stylisation but in quite a different way. To capture the virtuosity and diversity of Joyce’s literary creativity, most of the scenes were presented as burlesque cartoons, with music, puppetry, and weird costumes complementing the characters who, with the exception of Molly, were largely caricatures. Given the skills of the performers, deft movement and brilliant comic effects, all of this made for wonderful theatre.

But did it also serve to convey the deeper, universal themes of Joyce’s masterpiece? For much of the evening, I thought that it did. At the centre was David Pearse’s Bloom, a commonplace mortal, cuckolded and racially spurned, yet with inner strength to cope with a difficult world and to find fulfilment through love (in the broadest sense of that word). Janet Moran’s sensual Molly was life-enhancing. Donal Gallery’s effete and supercilious Stephen was convincingly the opposite. There was, in the first half at least, a satisfying balance between comedy and reflection, between scatology and earnest debate, between blithe indifference and dark self-doubt.

Admittedly this was followed by a period of twenty minutes or so when an apparent need excessively to jolly the audience with scenic ingenuity and frenetic comedy pushed things out of kilter. But happily, the balance was restored at the end, as we witnessed Bloom and Stephen leaving the stage movingly reconciled; and Bloom returning to the marital bed – if disjunctively, his head resting at the wrong end of the bed – with Molly nostalgically reminiscing on their courtship.