Brighton Fringe 2015
S P O I L E R A L E R T
This review probably contains spoilers. If this is a problem, please stop reading NOW. You can see my policy at www.stratmastoris.wordpress.com/spoilers
I don’t know anything at all about Menagerie Theatre Company – except that they’re very brave.
Or crazy. They’re doing a show about The Holocaust, using James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, the twentieth century’s second most difficult book – the book that almost nobody’s read.
But maybe they’re up to the task. ‘Ulysses’ is the story of one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew from Dublin, and it’s full of Joyce’s puns and wordplay. So I was impressed that even the show’s title can be read at least four ways –
Bloom in Auschwitz … A narrative of the extermination camp, featuring a central character.
Bloom: in Auschwitz … A narrative of an individual, focusing on one event in his life.
Bloomin’ Auschwitz … Derogatory slang for the death camp.
Bloominauschwitz … As a Joycean portmanteau word.
Not a bad start to a production trying to catch the flavour of James Joyce’s writing …
(and if ’Ulysses’ is the second most difficult book of the last century, the most difficult is certainly ’Finnegans Wake’ – Joyce wrote that one too.)
The most important thing to keep in mind about ‘Ulysses’ is that often it’s very funny indeed. There are loads of gags and comic situations, and above all it’s the most realistic book you’ll ever read – the characters behave in a completely lifelike fashion. Their minds and their conversations wander from topic to topic. They chew and salivate when they eat. They fart, they shit, they masturbate – all the stuff you don’t read in classical literature. (can you imagine Jane Eyre on the loo?)
We saw Leopold Bloom on the loo at the beginning of this show – the inside of an outside loo, behind a wooden shed door at the back of Bloom’s house. In fact he spent quite a lot of time there. Eyes screwed tight, jaw muscles clenched. Straining … to remember who he was, and where he was.
In the loo – he’d say ‘in the jakes’, which he pronounces "Jax"
The jakes itself is a wooden box with a hinged lid, with the shed door behind it. And a bucket by the side. There’s nothing else on stage apart from two enormous piles of paper – square white sheets stacked up, one of them almost the height of a man.
Nothing else at all – just a black stage and the man in the black suit and hat with his trousers and pants down round his ankles, straining.
Straining to remember his name, to anchor his existence somehow. Then he somehow splits into two, and there’s another man standing looking down at him. Patrick Morris is the other man as well – it’s a one-man performance – and it seems he’s just … appeared. He’s Leopold Bloom – but a Leopold Bloom from the future, and he tells the Leopold Bloom sitting in the jakes that he’s actually a character in James Joyce’s book, trapped forever on the sixteenth of June, nineteen hundred and four.
Patrick Morris is in his thirties, with dark curly hair cut fairly short. He’s thinner than Bloom seems to be in the book, but he played both Blooms completely believably – he switched between them so quickly, looking this way and then the other, that it seemed we were able to see them both on the stage at the same time. Rachel Aspinwall’s fluid direction kept him jumping back and forth around the stage – he never stopped moving for very long.
Trapped – a character in a book. Different levels of reality. The future-Bloom shows present-Bloom the book, takes it off the top of the paper stack and opens it. It’s a pop-up book, and paper cut-outs of Bloom’s family rise up from the pages – Molly his wife, Milly his daughter, and the cradle of his son Rudy, who died when he was less than two weeks old. Beautifully done, very visual, and cleverly written, too – we were given Bloom’s family situation elegantly and effectively. His present family, and his current situation.
But there’s a duality to Bloom that’s not just the present and future Blooms on stage. Bloom is a husband, but he’s also a cuckold – his wife Molly will spend the afternoon in bed with her lover, who Bloom will keep trying to avoid all morning as he moves around Dublin. Bloom is an Irishman, but he’s also a Jew – his father Rudolf Virág was a Jew from Hungary, who left to avoid the anti-Jewish pogroms and settled in Ireland.
Virág converted to Protestantism to marry his Protestant wife, Bloom’s mother, and later Bloom himself converted to Catholicism to marry the Catholic Molly. So where does that really leave Bloom? He eats pork, he’s picked up a pig’s kidney from the butcher’s, and he’s uncircumcised, he has a foreskin – Bloom peers down into his trousers to check – but he’s still regarded by most Irish people as a Jew, an Outsider.
There’s a section in the book where Bloom is abused in a bar by an Irish nationalist – the narrow-minded Citizen, which is beautifully brought to life in this production. It’s 1904, and there’s a rising feeling against Ireland’s colonisation as part of the British Empire. But along with the increase of nationalism there’s so often a parallel rise in racial prejudice – "Of what Nation are you?" demands The Citizen. It’s Bloom’s Jewishness that he’s suspicious of. Later in the play the future Bloom reminds us that the phenomenon of ‘the Citizen’ is again on the rise …
So that’s why future-Bloom has manifested – to show Bloom where he comes from … and what lies in store for his People.
‘Bloominauschwitz’ is a show about bringing a book to life, but it’s an incredibly visual production, using physical theatre and wonderful paper constructions to show us vast events. We’d already seen Reiko Wong’s pop-up book, and now Bloom cut out a rough paper figure to address his memory of his father, Virág. Then he took a long length of white cotton drapery, and with the bucket tucked inside to form a head shape he’d produced a flowing ghost, held high so that it loomed above him like a Golem, and he seemed to bring the thing alive, speaking to him in Virág’s deep Slavic voice.
"What do you want?"
"I want to belong" answers Bloom.
So his father tells him of Jewish life in Hungary, of Szombathely, the town west of Buda-Pest where he once lived. Of the music and the culture. Bloom cut out (well, pulled out from behind the paper stacks, actually) long paper chains – figures of men and women hand-in-hand – that stretched for metres and metres, right out into the audience, and we held them as Bloom attached the other ends to the door above the jakes. Wong’s paper cutting, and Steffi Meuller’s imaginative set design, made the whole stage look not unlike a maypole, and wild Hungarian gypsy fiddle music completed the sense of festival. Bloom danced between the long chains of his People – part of the Tribe.
But then the lights suddenly changed. Side lighting made the stage very stark, and Virág told him sharply – "Before, you had to deal with the fiction. Now you have to deal with the fact". – "Welcome to the Future … Welcome to Nineteen Forty Four"
Auschwitz. Harsh German voices bellowing commands and insults, as Bloom stripped to just his shirt and pants. Flashing lights, the sounds of marching boots and the rhythmic clatter of railway wagons, with their squealing wheels on the steel rails. There’s a hallucinatory ‘Nighttown’ chapter in ‘Ulysses’ where Bloom is confronted by accusing figures from his past and from his subconscious, all jumbled together like a nightmare. The play’s portrayal of the extermination camp had that same sense of unreality and terror.
Bloom wanted to be part of the Tribe, to be a real Jew, but faced with extermination himself he wanted to be a survivor more than to be a Jew. He denied his Jewishness – "Only a bit Jewish. Look, a foreskin" and became a Kapo, a Jewish Kapo, aiding in the extermination of others.
This is where Steffi Meuller’s design took us very close to the horrors of Auschwitz. The jakes box became an oven, orange light flooding up past the raised lid, catching Bloom’s face as he leaned over it with a pair of scissors, cutting the paper figures off the long chains – one by one – and dropping them into the flames. An incredibly vivid sight, searing into our retinas. That image – the seemingly unending line of people heading hand-in-hand towards death – will stay with me for many months.
And after Auschwitz? Obviously the Jewish people need a place of safety, and Bloom becomes a kind of Theodor Herzl or David Ben-Gurion, with the project of a Jewish homeland – a Promised Land.
The Promised Land. "This land – is it all ours?"
The Promised Land, "To thrive, we have to get rid of the weeds. Root up the weeds"
‘Ulysses’ is based on the structure of ‘The Odyssey’, the great narrative poem of Odysseus’ long voyage back to his home. Each ‘Ulysses’ chapter mirrors one Book from Homer’s work, and back in Dublin in 1904, the one-eyed Cyclops monster had been transformed into the narrow-minded nationalist Citizen we met earlier.
" Nation – a word with only one i " says Bloom. Only one eye – a typical Joycean pun. In 2015 the future Bloom receives a letter from his daughter Milly, who’s living on a kibbutz in Israel. "They say it’s a homeland for Jews" Bloom’s happy, but his face falls as he reads Milly’s recounting of Settlements, of razor wire and checkpoints and incoming rockets, missiles fired at them from Lebanon.
I’ve heard ‘Ulysses’ described as the best antidote to anti-Semitism ever written – it joyfully celebrates the essential humanity of all human beings, regardless of their religion or nationality. In 1904 the Irish suffered under the yoke of the British Empire. In 2015 the Palestinians suffer under Israeli nationalism and fundamentalist religious certainty. A Promised Land. Nation – a word with only one eye.
James Joyce’s masterpiece is a book to be read, thought about, but most of all – enjoyed! If that’s too daunting a prospect, though, ‘Bloominauschwitz’ will give you a great introduction. Try not to miss it.