'Ulysses' by James Joyce, freely adapted for stage by Dermot Bolger. Photo: John Johnston

'Ulysses' by James Joyce, freely adapted for stage by Dermot Bolger. Photo: John Johnston

'Ulysses' by James Joyce, freely adapted for stage by Dermot Bolger. Photo: John Johnston

'Ulysses' by James Joyce, freely adapted for stage by Dermot Bolger. Photo: John Johnston

'Ulysses' by James Joyce, freely adapted for stage by Dermot Bolger. Photo: John Johnston

'Ulysses' by James Joyce, freely adapted for stage by Dermot Bolger. Photo: John Johnston

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.

Not everything is completely successful. The 'Nighttown' episode outstays its welcome, putting severe strain upon the carnal ingenuity and stamina of Grant Smeaton, the actor charged (as brothel-keeper Bella Cohen) with pummelling Bloom intercrurally, and sporting a flamboyantly über-camp pantomime costume while doing it. And 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 (whose Nicholas Nickleby was, coincidentally, also mounted in Sam McCready’s absorbing adaptation at this year’s Belfast Festival), 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.

Terry Blain

  • Review
  • Theatre

Ulysses by James Joyce, in an adaptation by Dermot Bolger

30 Oct – 17 Nov 2012 (on tour)

Produced by Tron Theatre in association with Project Arts Centre and the Everyman, Cork
In the MAC, Belfast

Directed by Andy Arnold

Assistant Director: Andy McKie

Set/Costume Design: Charlotte Lane

Lighting Design: Sergey Jakovsky

Sound Design: Ross Brown

Choreography: Alan Greig

With: Jean-Paul Van Cauwelaert, Stephen Clyde, Michael Dylan, Maeve Fitzgerald, Muireann Kelly, Mary Murray, Paul Riley, Grant Smeaton


Presented as part of Belfast Festival at Queen's 2012.