The Abbey Theatre is split in two. Its stage has been replaced by a new seating bank, familiar wood-panels expand its walls, and a ritzy cabaret bar sits in the centre of the auditorium. It’s clear that director Graham McLaren’s transformation – putting the venue in the traverse – intends to meet the demands of James Joyce’s epic novel head on.
A fresh configuration of the Abbey is welcome; we could do with new ways of seeing Ulysses, which rests at around 250,000 words and entangled by experiments in literary modernism. Dermot Bolger’s spry adaptation manages to extract every chapter of Joyce’s plot: a day-long odyssey through Dublin in 1904, which touches on everything from the momentous (an overshadowing funeral) to the banal (a scene on a toilet).
Early on, we find the young teacher Stephen Dedalus (an earnest Donal Gallery) reflecting on his recently dead mother. We might expect this to be a poignant portrayal of loss, as a shiver of music suggests a sincere meeting with her ghost. The arrival of an impersonal puppet is disappointing.
The same hoary method is used to haunt our other protagonist: Leopold Bloom (David Pearse), a figure drowning in grief, rejection and masochism. It seems that McLaren’s production is to match Joyce’s genre-hopping tendencies with its own array of storytelling devices. Superficial businessman Blazes Boylan (Garret Lombard) gets an operetta. A slapstick sequence shows Leopold being arrested for an imagined court trial.
These pull focus from what otherwise might be an emotional drama. The eventual meeting of Stephen and Leopold should leave an impact but in a scene that draws them like Pathé newsreaders, they’ve been flattened into cartoons. When both arrive at a brothel, there’s risqué puppets and sex but no risk in the staging.
This leaves the boldness of Joyce’s work in danger of being tempered. The famous stream-of-consciousness is inevitably punctuated: Pearse speaks it with awkwardness, Gallery turns it into powerful rhetoric, and in Janet Moran’s otherwise deft performance as Leopold’s wife, Molly, it is disappointingly conventional.
It seems misguided to smooth over the edges in a novel like Ulysses. Its fragmentation has always stirred.
Ulysses is at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until October 28th. For more details, click here.