Journeying to the heart of Joyce’s world
Theatre by Mark Brown
How does one adapt James Joyce’s epic fiction Ulysses – considered by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th century – for the stage?
The book, which follows Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus through a day in Dublin, is acclaimed for its astonishing variety of literary styles; the immense scope of its lexicon; the richness of its cultural allusions and the vibrancy of its characters. It is a novel which seems eminently adaptable to the stage, but at the same time, in its sheer scale and complexity, resolutely resistant to theatrical translation.
Andy Arnold, who is directing the premiere of the stage version of Joyce’s magnum opus by acclaimed Irish author Dermot Bolger, is acutely aware of this dichotomy. “An awful lot of playwrights have been approached about adapting Ulysses, and have backed off,” he says. “When I heard that Dermot was doing it, I read it immediately, and it seemed to me that all the most theatrical bits of the book, and the most interesting dialogue, were in this play.
“I’ve always liked the idea of staging Ulysses. I’ve always loved the language of it, and I’ve always thought that there’s so much in the book that is theatrical. So much of the novel is conversations you hear in a pub or on a bus, and they’re very funny.”
The challenge facing any dramatist who seeks to adapt Ulysses is how to select from the book without destroying its atmospheric essence. Arnold says: “Dermot describes the play as a ‘free adaptation’. If any Joyce experts come, I’m sure they’ll be disappointed by what’s left out.
“However, there’s definitely a narrative arc to the piece. It’s important to me that an audience member who comes to see the play without any knowledge of the book at all is able to enjoy the theatrical experience.
“It’s a piece of theatre in which, just like the book, elements of it will wash over you and you won’t be sure quite what’s going on. Nonetheless, I think there’s enough there to follow the narrative from the beginning to the end.”
Arnold is, perhaps, the theatre director in Scotland who is most qualified to take on Joyce’s novel. Steeped in Irish theatre, he has directed fine productions of plays by Brian Friel, Sean O’Casey and, most significantly, Joyce’s student, Samuel Beckett.
“There is so much Beckett-style dialogue in Ulysses,” Arnold says. “Obviously Beckett was heavily influenced by Joyce, but still, the similarities are quite uncanny at times. As with Beckett, there’s an incredible musicality in the way the novel is written; Ulysses really has to be spoken rather than read. So much of the language of the book is about the onomatopoeic qualities of words.”
The rich language of Bolger’s script (every word is taken from Joyce’s novel) requires the best actors. Arnold’s cast includes Irish actors Jean-Paul Van Cauwelaert (as Leopold Bloom) and Muireann Kelly (Molly Bloom and others).
To stage Ulysses in its entirety would take days – the Tron’s production will run to about two-and-a-half hours, including an interval.
“It’s about getting the balance right,” admits Arnold. “On the one hand, you need to make sure that you keep the audience with you. On the other hand, as Dermot says, ‘If an audience goes into a theatre at 7.30pm and comes out before 9.30pm, they haven’t seen Ulysses’.”
Ulysses is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 12-27, then touring in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland until November 17. http://www.tron.co.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 7, 2012
© Mark Brown