Dermot Bolger's adaptation of James Joyce's famous novel is 'a tribute to Joyce's own curious imagination'
You need copious amounts of wit and audacity to turn James Joyce's Ulysses into a stage play. Many decades after it was first published, this 1904 masterpiece continues to resist all attempts to tame it. Vast, complex and richly allusive, it defies interpretation, refusing to be contained.
The best that dramatists can hope to do is to capture something of the strange suggestiveness of the original. When Dermot Bolger wrote his version, in 1993, he knew the enormity of what he was taking on. Reflecting on it recently, he said:
'What impressed me most as a reader was what scared me most as a playwright. Not only does Joyce create remarkable characters in all their contradictions, but his book expands to encompass the physical and psychological backdrop of an entire city.'
It was always going to be imperfect. 'No playwright could ever match the expanse of Joyce’s vision,' said Bolger. 'I could only go where my curiosity led me, hoping that the relationships that most fascinated me might intrigue other people.'
It is Bolger's Ulysses – 'freely adapted for stage', as the programme notes acknowledge – that was performed at The MAC by the Glasgow-based Tron Theatre Company over three nights as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen's (until November 1). And it worked.
That's because Bolger and Tron had the confidence to grab hold of Joyce's text and have their wicked way with it, rather than tiptoe reverently and politely around the edges. What emerges is a great, rollicking, colourful piece of theatre that does contain the sheen and the shenanigans, if not the weightier substance, of the novel.
Bolger turns the original on its head, beginning (as well as ending) with Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy, and using Molly's meandering night-time thoughts as a way to structure the play.
So Leopold Bloom's day in Dublin becomes a kind of dream-like sequence, and this hallucinatory quality allows numerous characters, memories, thoughts and places to pop up and recede, ebbing and flowing in a way that owes much to the fluidity and sense of play of the original.
At the centre of it all is a big brass bed, occupied by Muireann Kelly as a fulsome, flighty and brassily voluptuous Molly. Kelly's charismatic and irrepressible performance – the sheer force of her personality – gives the play focus and solidity when it threatens, which at times it does, to get carried away with its own whimsy.
Jean-Paul Van Cauwelaert, as Leopold, brings a slightly maudlin, hang-dog sensibility to the role, which underscores the character's thoughtfulness and sensitivity, even though it does little to draw out Bloom's earthier side, such as his appetite for the 'inner organs of beasts and fowls', the grilled mutton kidneys that come with 'a fine tang of faintly scented urine'.
The sheer versatility of the eight member cast is one of the most striking aspects of the play: together they manage to evoke around 80 characters that Bloom meets on his travels around Dublin. Their energy and wit is infectious. But it is Charlotte Lane's remarkable set that makes the entire action possible.
Set on a round wooden stage, it is made up of cupboards, boxes, drawers and doors, which double as hiding places, lavatories and even portals to the past. Such inventiveness is a tribute to Joyce's own curious imagination.