Category Archives: Features

A Dublin Bloom | An Interview With Dermot Bolger

This article was originally published on HeadStuff on July 19th, 2018.

Dermot Bolger is a stalwart of the Irish literary scene, having written numerous novels and plays since the mid-1980s. These include his recent successes Tanglewood, a microscopic look at the Irish property boom of 00s, and The Lonely Sea and Sky, a coming of age novel set against the backdrop of World War II. He is known to indigenous readers as a champion of working-class narratives, but the subject matter of his fiction is far-reaching and touches off many facets of Irish life. It is unsurprising then that he would choose to concern himself with Joyce‘s Ulysses, a sprawling narrative that interrogates the contradictions of life in Dublin in the early 20thcentury.

Humble Beginnings?

In between paltry sups of tea, Bolger details the complicated history of his fated adaptation. “I was approached by Greg Doran, who is now the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to do a production of it,” he says. However, changes in Irish copyright law would affect his work while it was still in its infancy. Originally, the copyright on works lapsed 50 years post the author’s death. This means that when Bolger began to pen the show, Joyce’s writings were in the public domain. This was in the early 1990s.

The script that Bolger had written found life as a rehearsed reading in the United States. The once-off production was staged to an audience of 1300 people. However, when it came to stage the piece in Ireland, it was clear that they would have to contend with new state laws: “It quickly became apparent that the European Union was going to change its copyright laws, it was going to harmonise [them]. It was going to take the German model of 70 years … So [Ulysses] was going to come back into copyright.”

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

That author was not sure a theatre would commit to a project if its legal status became uncertain. Despite this, he found a work-around to ensure his project found a certain life: “The day before the copyright reverted to [Joyce’s estate], I actually did a reading of it. I got a number of my friends to do it in the Project Arts Centre. We did it at ten past nine in the morning because we figured ‘no solicitor would get here in time.’ We tried to get two men and a dog, but we couldn’t get a dog so we just did it with the two men, and we read it.”

This story is suitably Joycean, as the author himself also had to contend with innumerable laws to get his works published. Ulysses was banned in United States – copies of it were burned by the New York Postal Authority – and although contemporary audiences consider it Ireland’s national text, it would not be openly available in the country until the 1960s, 40 years after its initial publication.

Eventually, Bolger got in contact with Andy Arnold, artistic director of the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, and together the pair revived the production in 2012. With the text out of copyright once more, they were able to transform it into a full-blown play.

Metempsychosis: A Question of Adaptation

“—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.

—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.”

This is how Leopold Bloom, the unlikely hero of Ulysses, explains a cumbersome and philosophically-charged word to his wife, Molly. This is when we meet our protagonist, and from here we follow his journey through Dublin on June 16th, 1904. Despite its reputation as a mostly-inaccessible text, the narrative of Ulysses, at its very heart, is simple: Leopold, an Irish Jew of Hungarian descent, wanders through the capital on the day his wife is to have an affair. What proves to be a challenge for some, though, is the scrupulous digging required to appreciate the novel to its fullest. Although simple at its core, the book is buried beneath several layers of irony, shifts narrative styles between chapters, and through dialogue, Joyce has sprinkled his book with meditations on art, literature, nationalism, love, sex, and smut.

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Indeed, the very idea of transmigration is central to text: it is based on Homer’s Odyssey, with each hour in the book corresponding to a year in the life of Odysseus, Homer’s quintessential hero. Others have attempted a certain kind of transmigration before: In 1967, American film director Joseph Strick adapted the book for the screen. The resulting production, although occasionally showing promise, quickly devolves into a highlight reel with wordy narrations. Critic Pauline Kael famously said of it, “[Ulysses is] an act of homage in the form of readings … plus slides.” Does Bolger feel he has streamlined the text enough for theatregoers, without isolating the scholars?

“The Abbey version is different from the Tron version,” he says. “And this version is quite different from the Abbey version of last year [the current production enjoyed a successful run in October of 2017]. There’s still the emotional essence of the book. Because the book is 18 episodes, a dazzling array of linguistic styles, covering 265,000 words, you have to figure out what to cut.”

For Bolger it became of matter of focusing on what sections best flesh out the characters, to provide them with the depth for which the novel is most famous: “In the Tron version there was a whole section in the newspaper offices, as there is in the book. A week into rehearsals, I said to Graham [McLaren, director of the Abbey version], ‘the newspaper offices isn’t really telling us anything.’ I mean, we see how Bloom’s contemporaries relate to Bloom and everything else, but nothing that we haven’t been told elsewhere.” The scene is question is the Aeolus episode, in which Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s insert character, miss meeting each other for the first of many times.

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Bolger continues: “It began as the play of the book, and now it’s almost the play of the play. Novels give you a lot of scope, because generally novels aren’t read in one sitting and you’re able to have subplots. I just had to figure out the emotional journey of Bloom, and of [his marriage to Molly], what made their marriage. In the end I had to go into the areas of the book that most engaged my intellectual curiosity, but also most engaged my empathy.”

What makes the current run at the Abbey unique is the use of puppets. Some of the characters made famous in the novel are portrayed here by grotesque, uncanny caricatures of human figures. Rudy Bloom, the deceased son of Leopold and Molly, appears as a small, blue, Tolkien-esque figure, with accentuated facial features and dark, beady eyes.

The same act of transformation is seen in characters who appear in the Cyclops episode of the book: Joyce used this piece to criticise the atavistic and animalistic nature of staunch nationalism. In this section, Bloom enters Barney Kiernan’s pub only to be chastised by a man known only as ‘the Citizen’, a Republican and anti-Semite. In the Abbey version, he is gaunt and menacing. By choosing to depict him in such grotesque terms, Bolger and McLaren have only emphasised Joyce’s original critique: that atavistic nationalism is inherently malformed.

The puppets are also used to emphasise the more comedic aspects of the book. When adapting the Circe episode, in which Bloom and Dedalus experience physical manifestations of their greatest fears, characters from earlier in the text appear again, only this time as body puppets worn by the actors. The bawdy and acerbic dialogue is punctuated by slapstick comedy, as the performers milk as much humour out the situation as possible: this includes Brian Burroughs as a masturbating Buck Mulligan, and Faoileann Cunningham as a flirty and accusatory Gerty McDowell.

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

On the humour found in the book, Bolger says: “Nora Barnacle [Joyce’s partner], who believed Joyce should have stuck to the singing, used to complain that he’d keep her awake at night laughing at what he wrote. The fun thing about Ulysses is that the most theatrical bits of it – like Nighttown [the ‘Circe’ chapter] – are actually very theatrical. There’s a lot of subtle humour going on there, there’s really a lot of very Dublin humour that has gone past you before you actually realise that it’s a joke, and the humour is very contemporary. It’s something you could imagine two fellas sitting at the counter in this bar saying.”

Another departure from the book is in how Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is handled: In the novel the entirety of the last chapter, titled ‘Penelope’, is dedicated to Molly’s rambling stream of consciousness. She meditates on life with her husband and recounts the events of the day from her perspective. In the Abbey production, her speech is spliced into sections and introduced to the narrative at intermittent points. It therefore centres the narrative, and the staging that Bolger and McLaren have created reflects this: Molly, played with great delicacy by Janet Moran, spends the majority of the play in her bed in the middle of the stage. The audience, and indeed the action of the day, is centred around her, and her interruptions offer the perfect, almost grounded counterpoint to Bloom’s highfalutin musings.

“Molly’s monologue is the most theatrical part of the book,” Bolger says. “It unbalances any show because basically you would have to have everything else in the book in Act One, and Molly in Act Two.” Bolger chose to present Molly’s piece in this way to give his production a more streamlined, dreamlike quality: “When Molly is awake, and Molly is having a monologue, and Bloom is asleep, and Bloom is reliving his day in dreams, you can have that strange, fractured narrative quality that dreams have. Like, you and I could be in this pub in a dream and be on a bus two seconds later in the same dream.”

“By having Molly in the foreground, I could then begin to dig into the emotional heart of the journey of this man who has lost his son at 11 days old and has not fully recovered from that.”

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

A Question of Relevance

Despite ambivalence from many readers, Ulysses continues to entertain into the 21st Century. The annual ‘Bloomsday’ festival, set every year on 16th June, attracts tourists from across the world. Fans mimic their favourite sections from the book, and map Bloom’s journey through the city minute by minute. How is it that a book so seemingly of its time, with dated reflections on the Irish psyche and the nation’s place in the world, be so appealing to contemporary readers?

Another example of transmigration it seems: “I read Ulysses for the first time at the age of 14,” Bolger says, “on the impression that it was a dirty, scandalous book. And when you’re 14, it’s not. Then I read it when I was 24, and when I began to adapt it, when I began to read it seriously, Bloom was still a year or two older than me. Then, each time it was done, I had a different relationship to Bloom, because now I envy his relative youth. I turn 60 next year.”

He continues: “It’s like an appreciation of whisky, or any great work of literature: You respond differently to it at 20 as you do at 30, as you do at 40, because you’re bringing your life experience. Some years ago, I lost my wife, and now I understand the undercurrent of grief running through Ulysses in a way that doesn’t have a direct connection, but my life experience [is there] now that I return to it.”

The theme of loss is ever-present in Ulysses. It is what eventually brings Bloom in contact with the young, bookish Dedalus. The protagonist Bloom finds a son-surrogate in the young Stephen, who is looking for a paternal figure himself in the fallout of his mother’s passing.

Bolger also finds something relatable in the character of Leopold Bloom, who is played in the Abbey production by actor David Pearse. “[Bloomsday], this alternative national day, is in honour of a Hungarian Jew, who, even in the funeral cortege to Glasnevin Cemetery [as seen in the ‘Hades’ episode], you know is an outsider.”

Bolger feels that if Joyce had chosen to make Bloom either Catholic or Protestant, that that would have come with significant baggage, denoting the character with many presuppositions based on Irish history: “He doesn’t have that same easy familiarity. If he had been Catholic, we would have had many preconceptions about his politics. If he had been Protestant, then he becomes part of the same lost, vanished ascendency class of Bram Stoker or Sheridan Le Fanu … Who wrote out of the sense that their own power was fading away. Because he was Jewish, he didn’t have any power. And because he is an outsider, he is observant of everything … He’s present, but he’s also excluded.”

In a passage near the book’s closing, Dedalus and Bloom, having squandered money in a brothel, end the night by going to a cabman’s shelter. They discuss politics, and Bloom, having been persecuted for his outsider status for the duration of the books, quips “a revolution must come on the due instalments plan.” Indeed, the same forces that oppressed Bloom and Dedalus – forces of religion, sectarianism, and oppressive attitudes towards sexuality, art, writing – have been unravelled in recent years not by divine intervention, but by slow, calculated manoeuvres by grassroots movements. Social change has come through the long, arduous work of the everyman.

We hint at this in conversation. Bolger smiles: “Yes, I think Bloom would sit very comfortably in the Dublin of 2018.”

Ulysses runs until the 21st of July. Tickets can be purchased through the Abbey Theatre website.


Featured Image: Ulysses by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

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10 Years On | Is Funny Games A Soulless Exercise In Movie Violence?

This article was originally published on HeadStuff on March 14th, 2018.

*This article contains spoilers for Funny Games*

The original Funny Games debuted in 1997, generating a critical storm of both condemnation and adoration. Directed by arthouse darling Michael Haneke, the film acts as a contemplative thesis on the nature of consumable violence, particularly that which is expressed through the American slasher film. As an audience we are forced to question which strains of violence are permissible and which are simply tasteless, a challenge that proved too much for some filmgoers.

Haneke remade the film, beat for beat, with an American cast in 2007 (and released on this day in 2008). The act of remaking emphasises the director’s original critique – that through viewing the film once more we are satisfying our desire to witness repeat violence, and by transposing the setting from Austria to the United States, he brings the critique straight to the originator of cinema violence, Hollywood.

The plot of the film is thin by design. It is less concerned with narrative convention than it is by scrutinising filmic violence. Its goals are outlined clearly from the get-go. A well-to-do family venture to their lake house to vacation: Ann Farber (Naomi Watts), her husband George (Tim Roth) and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) travel along a tranquil country road listening to opera, and take turns guessing the composers of the tracks they are listening to. This supposed calmness is interrupted when the main titles appear, and a heavy metal song by US band Naked City plays over the dialogue, silencing the family, operatic score and the initial serenity of the scene. The comfort of the middle-class existence continues to be uprooted by the visit of two home invaders, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), who torture the family with a series of sadistic games that ultimately result in their deaths.

Haneke has never shied away from class critique. In fact, it has become exemplary of his work. His 2005 psychological thriller Caché, for example, centres around the collective guilt of French colonialism and the country’s treatment of Algerians. Even his most recent film, Happy End (2017), features periphery commentary of the lived experience of immigrants in Calais. However, what these films contain, and what is missing in Funny Games, is backstory. The protagonist of Caché is punished for mistreating his adopted younger brother, an Algerian, in his youth; his experience acting as a metaphorical return of the repressed narrative for the French nation. The family in Happy End are embarrassed by a rogue contingent in their collective for ignoring the plight of migrants in France. Such narratives contain middle-to-upper class families who face their comeuppance for wilful prejudice.

Little is known about the family in Funny Games, save for that they maybe enjoy quinoa. Their characterisations are not just flat, but practically non-existent. We know that they listen to opera, own a boat, that they keep their house in pristine condition and have a fully stocked fridge, but there is no catalyst for the violence inflicted upon them. They are simply blank canvasses upon which Haneke can cast his experiment in torture porn.

The captors are not named consistently. Initially introduced as “Peter/Paul”, they refer to themselves throughout by a variety of pop culture double acts, such as “Tom/Jerry” and “Beavis/Butthead”. They also invent numerous inconsistent backstories, telling the family that they come from poverty, that they are simply bored rich kids, or that they are drug addicts who steal from wealthy families to feed their habit. Their names and backstories are not important. Much like Ann, George and Georgie, they lack traditional characterisation and act as omnipotent beings who seemingly know what is about to transpire before the audience does. They enact violence in a methodical, cool and collected way, making for some unnerving performances from Pitt and Corbet.

Funny Games - HeadStuff.org
Michael Pitt as Paul in Funny Games (2007). Source

 

Despite its reputation, the film shows little explicit violence. Instead, the violence is simply implied by clever use of filmmaking techniques. When the captors force Ann to undress, Haneke does not give in to the sensationalist tendencies of Hollywood cinema, instead choosing to rest the camera on a close-up of Naomi Watts’ pained expression, and the reactions of her traumatised husband. We are therefore forced to imagine the violence in our minds, and question what it is we expected to see or, more bleakly, what some viewers might want to see.

Any indication that the family will escape their circumstances […] are offered up and immediately crushed, quelled, quashed, and rejected by a film that takes every conceivable route to confuse and shock you into thought.

The film also contains what may be the most upsetting sequence I have seen in cinema, and again, the action immediately preceding it takes place offscreen. Broken and bound, the family are left helpless as Paul goes to the kitchen to make food. We watch him leave the room, open the fridge and proceed to make something to eat. Then, a loud bang is heard, followed by intermittent, animalistic screeching. This continues for some time as the audience is left puzzled as to what has happened.

The following shot is of a blood-stained television, a staggering image that Haneke makes great pains to emphasise (because what more screams violence in American media than a bloody telly?) The invaders squabble among themselves while the film remains static on this shot, and eventually they leave. The following sequence reveals to us what has happened: Ann is seen in the background, hunched over, utterly speechless and dehumanised. In the foreground: the body of her now dead son, Georgie. He has been shot by Peter, his blood spewed over their once white walls and their television, the horror of home invasion made reality in their pristine middle-class lives.

Funny Games - HeadStuff.org
The bloodied television set in Funny Games. Source

The next ten minutes are shot as an excruciating single-take. We watch Ann struggle to get up, hobble offscreen, free herself of her bonds, and come to comfort her broken husband. The audience is made process the horror of what has happened in real time alongside the fictional family, and therefore made aware of the outcomes of the violence they so easily consume in mainstream cinema.

Throughout the piece, any indication that the family will escape their circumstances, any glimmer of hope offered to suggest we will soon follow traditional narrative standards, are offered up and immediately crushed, quelled, quashed, and rejected by a film that takes every conceivable route to confuse and shock you into thought.

Georgie’s death, for example, stems from Haneke’s rejection of narrative expectations. Prior to this we see Georgie break from his captors and escape the house. A set-up such as this conjures many suppositions: when a child breaks free in a horror or slasher film, it is expected that they are going to find help, from authorities or from a friend, á la The Shining for example. This does not happen. Georgie is found by Paul, who kidnaps him once more, takes him back, and this eventually leads to the boy’s murder.

Later, when Peter is shot by Ann, providing the audience with some much-needed catharsis following their litany of violent acts, Paul simply picks up a television remote and rewinds the scene, thereby preventing the action from having ever happened. Narrative convention is once more usurped, and we are left to question which modes of violence are acceptable (the death of an evil-doer) and which are not.

Regardless of what version you are watching, Funny Games is a painful watch,  acting as a rather soulless one hour and fifty-minute essay in violence on screen and how we need to change our ways. It is one of the few films I have watched in my lifetime that actively positions itself against the viewer and takes every conceivable opportunity it can to anger you. Then again, maybe it was not supposed to be enjoyed in any conventional way, especially when taken for what it is: a filmic experiment into our enjoyment of violence and nothing more.


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