Hen And Chickens, London N1
Opened 2 March, 1994

Virtually the only sections of James Joyce's modernist masterpiece that ever seem to be staged are the brothel scene (under the misapprehension that, as it is written in cod-dramatic form, it should be a pushover) and Molly Bloom's final monologue (since it's, well, a monologue). It's positively refreshing to see a company taking on a different chapter of the sprawling Dublin epic.

Where Homer's hero dallied with the nymph Nausicäa, Joyce's protagonist Leopold Bloom masturbates on a beach at the sight of young Gerty MacDowell, her head brimful with romantic clichés. Only as she leaves in the gathering dusk does he realise that she is lame.

It's a chapter of two halves, and Olivia Fuchs's two-handed production strives but fails to resolve them. Gerty's thoughts of love's young dream, comical in themselves, are beautifully deflated by the squawling and brawling of her friends' younger brothers, as Jacques Bourgaux switches instantly from the mutely contemplating Mr Bloom to a wailing infant or, miraculously, a pair of bickering brats. As evening falls and a firework display begins, Gerty's teasing of Bloom at a distance is less coquettish than she intends not all the oohs and aahs are for the skyborne explosions. Bourgaux and Sarah Harper play this phase with perfect pitch, wrapped in earnestness and letting the text provide the bathos.

With Gerty's departure, it's more difficult to find an excuse to bring Harper back onstage to people Bloom's free-associative musings on every subject under the stars. Bourgaux has to fall back too much upon his Jacques Lecoq training in order to sustain interest, tainting Bloom with idiosyncrasy which destroys his status as an Everyman. Moreover, though a talented performer, he over-compensates for his Frenchness by giving a too-correct, sometimes stilted voice to his lines of classless Dublinese.

A brief music-hall double-act sequence leavens the proceedings, and Fuchs includes a climactic vision of Gerty apotheosized into the Blessed Virgin, fervently clutching a plastic lobster, which is delightfully camp in its deflation of the illusions of both characters. These moments cannot inject enough substance into the butterflying thoughts of Bloom during the second half, and Fuchs is far from solving all the problems inherent in dramatising any part of Ulysses - but it's immensely welcome to see a Joyce play that doesn't end with "Yes I said yes I will yes."

Written for the London Evening Standard.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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