Dermot Bolger’s stage adaptation of Ulysses brings the brilliant cacophony of Dublin life to a boil, as the production chronicles a dizzying microcosm brimming with the inherent contradictions of human experience. Bolger, in fact, carves out the human core of Joyce’s expansive masterpiece, focusing the play around the human drama of the novel. There is a sense of mirroring happening throughout the play as the voyages of Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, within the oppressive claustrophobia of Dublin, are used as looking glasses in which the audience readily peers through only to find themselves at the other end.
Far from prosaic, the production animates Dublin viscerally: the city combusts in jovial song and dance while revealing the ghosts that haunt it and its inhabitants. These musical intervals disrupt the narrative as a sort of dream sequence and function as an attempt to pull Dublin out of its conventional pleasantries to a place where the regulations of social life are suspended and Dublin can finally be honest with herself. Designer and Director Graham McLaren’s poignant inclusion of macabre-looking puppets as occasional infestors of the stage point out the chaotic nature of Ulysses as a Dublin chronicle; the puppets first make their appearance as Dedalus’ dead mother and then as Rudy, the Blooms’ unborn child. They later gather in numbers on stage to create a still-shot of Dublin where the burning need to move forward is met with a plaguing of the past. McLaren’s choices leave no allowance for peace of mind as the characters’ inner struggles are externalized in a visually absurd procession of everything that is consciously avoided in their daily lives.
The gnawing issues of loss and betrayal that reverberate through the play pour onto the stage as a manifestation of a subconscious that is wrung free from the repression so fervently practiced by these Dubliners. The production may seem extravagant, full of bawdy games and cabaret-like interferences yet it is with a subtle profundity that they expose the city’s polarity in what it says and what it means. This line is blurred again as the play’s disruptive narrative is speckled with Edwardian Dublin’s prejudices, rampant party politics, mental health and addiction epidemics, as well as, the absurdity of the law where institutionalized morality pervades on private life. The darkness of Dublin abides within the play’s characters and is never dealt with as an isolated experience but rather a largely shared one where people are privy and reactionary to what torments the other.
The set itself functions with no boundaries, the Blooms’ marital bed lies in the centre of the stage and is encircled by numerous round tables and chairs and a bar at the far end of the stage. Audience members with stage tickets were seated around those tables, astounded at the realization that they are now part of the play and part of the fabric that constitutes Dublin life. Characters walk and interact through them, their presence at times feeling natural, and at others wildly inappropriate, serving as a reminder that Dublin has no privacy. They are both the facilitators and victims of eavesdropping and of the prevailing claustrophobia. By the end of the play, there are no walls, everyone works as one and is as exposed and bare as the next person.
Ulysses runs at the Abbey Theatre from October 2 – 28.