On June 16 Leopold Bloom wandered around Dublin, immortalized in James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses. Of course, ‘wandered’ is an understatement, as the novel was revolutionary as is excavated the extraordinary from the mundane. June 16, now affectionately known as Bloomsday, is celebrated across the globe, honoring Joyce and his contribution to the literary landscape, and Irish culture.
The organisation ‘Bloomsday in Melbourne’ organizes events each year to mark the date, with lectures, readings and staged productions of Joyce’s work. This year, they have brought Joyce’s first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to the stage at fortyfivedownstairs. Fittingly, 2016 is the centenary of the publication of the novel, which Is a semi-autobiographical story of a young Irish man grappling with his religious upbringing in light of newfound European intellectualism.
Bloomsday in Melbourne’s adaptation of the work, directed by Wayne Pearn, is a fine tribute to the first work of a literary great. With solid performances from the entire cast – not a single slip from the strong Irish accents—it was a vibrant, interesting insight into the cultural shift that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century. Matthew J. Dorning shone as the central character, Stephen Dedalus, hitting every beat of his long monologues with a near-perfect Irish intonation. He brought a rigorous energy to the stage, and his transformation from dedicated theological student to brash atheist and intellectual was a measured and thoughtful journey, with moments of stunning imagery.
Ultimately, however, the production didn’t quite capture Joyce’s revolutionary, playful relationship with language. There were certainly peaks when the poetry of the novel shone – the description of the girl on the beach, Stephen’s first sexual experience, and a sermon of hell and damnation delivered with great ferocity by Christina Costigan. In these moments the relationship between the words spoken and the energy held in the actors’ body was electric, and seemed to embody the kind of physical impact that Joyce’s style can have on the reader. But the play coddled these moments with a primarily naturalistic tone and style, and the decision to break the action into distinct and often very short vignettes interrupted the natural flow of the language, jarring and jolting the audience from the world they had sought to create.
When we first entered the space, I was intrigued by the set. With audience on three sides, a sheet of astro-turf across the floor and tropical plants creeping their way up the sold concrete pillars of fortyfivedownstairs, the space felt surreal and the house was abuzz. The program notes suggested that the action takes place inside Stephen’s head – memories playing out. But the action of the play barely interacted with the space, aside from a wonderful moment with a woman, a snake and an apple.
As the story skipped between memory, set pieces were brought on and off. The vignettes were often quite short, and by the time the audience had settled into the new time and space and characters, and the scene was building momentum, it was cut off and whisked away. This was effective at times, reflecting the sharp twists and turns of the reminiscent mind, but the transitions dragged and destroyed any rhythm or drive from the previous scene. The women changing the set pieces were in costume to fit each scene which was an excellent touch, but those long pauses extremely jarring. In such a significant coming of age story, not just for the character but for modernist writing and expression, these moments in liminal space and time are so potent but sadly underutilized in this production.
There was a disappointing lack of playfulness in this production. As it notes in the program, Joyce painted portraits of characters that love to play with language. The production had moments of beautiful, lucid engagement with language, but its attempts to be playful often fell flat. Stephen twice breaks out in rap, but it seems strained, as if the force and flow of the words had been suppressed by the relative realism of the production, until in these two isolated incidences, the playfulness explodes out in a highly pressurized form. The result was more jarring than a joyous engagement with wordplay.
Overall, certainly a production that Joyce fans should see (if you can get a ticket! I believe they may have already sold out). The costume design was very impressive, particularly the priest cloaks – with intricate embroidery and vibrant colours, the attention to detail was admirable. An interesting staging of a fascinating work, sure to provoke some stringent discussion post-show as to how best to bring the playfulness and sharpness of a Joycean character, and their complex and sprawling psyche’s to the stage.