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Ulysses, Abbey Theatre / The Tin Soldier, Gate Theatre, Dublin review - peerless Joyce marathon, Andersen squashed | reviews, news & interviews

Ulysses, Abbey Theatre / The Tin Soldier, Gate Theatre, Dublin review - peerless Joyce marathon, Andersen squashed

Ulysses, Abbey Theatre / The Tin Soldier, Gate Theatre, Dublin review - peerless Joyce marathon, Andersen squashed

Barry McGovern is odyssey master, while fine performers sag under awful script

Barry McGovern: consummate journey through 'Ulysses'Both McGovern images by Ste Murray

A pot plant on a stand, two tables with glasses of water, two chairs – one plush, one high – are all the props needed on the stage of the Abbey’s second theatre, the Peacock, for the ultimate complete reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses in its 100th year. For Barry McGovern is a master: one of Beckett’s favourite actors, on a par with Billie Whitelaw, and immersed in all things Joycean over the past 30 years (★★★★★).

McGovern began his odyssey last Friday morning at 10am, bringing to vivid life the first two, plain-sailing episodes of Ulysses, where we meet Stephen Dedalus not quite happy with Falstaffian mentor Buck Mulligan in the Martello Tower at Dublin’s Sandycove, and still less so with the anti-Semitic Mr Deasey at the school where he’s teaching. Then into Stephen’s head, not easily read as he roves the shore of Dublin bay but hypnotically welcome in McGovern's vocalisation, drawing us towards the darker recesses of a rather lost soul.

There were happy souls able to make all 14 three-or-so-hour sessions; for me, work called on most afternoons. So I had to remember what I’d read of acquaintance with Leopold Bloom, the kindly Jewish bourgeois Dubliner who becomes Stephen’s true spiritual guide; nearly a week later, on Bloomsday morning, 16 June, after the first reading of the day at the Martello Tower – amateur and widely distributed (pictured below) - and a dip in “the Forty Foot” like Mulligan, I’d be eating something like what he had for breakfast – “the inner organs of beasts and fowls” – at Kennedys Bar opposite Swenys Pharmacy where Bloom bought lemon soap and orange blossom water. Bloomsday morning reading at the Martello Tower, SandycoveConcentration became more intense as the episodes grew longer. “Aeolus”, with its multiple newspaper headlines and vivid exchanges in the offices of the Evening News.et al was enhanced by a walk in one of the breaks to said offices, also on Abbey Street but the other side of the major O’Connell thoroughfare. McGovern’s baritonal mastery of all the songs and ballads punctuating the text was spot-on, from “The Boys of Wexford” to Don Giovanni, heightened the pleasure. And in “Lestrygonians”, as Bloom roves the south side at lunchtime, degustatory pleasures or horrors were etched with further sensual vividness. Yet the outstanding passage, phrased by McGovern with such quiet dignity, outlines our older hero’s sense of transience. Likewise the sadness of young Master Dignam, newly bereaved of his father, in the cinematic cross-cutting of diverse meetings and trajectories in “Wandering Rocks”, calling upon McGovern’s biggest range of voices yet.

The supreme tour de force, of the seven episodes I was able to catch, came in the bewildering dreamscapes of “Circe”, split across Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning. The brothels of Nighttown (the Monto red-light area in north-east Dublin, the biggest at the time in the whole of Europe) become real for a time – Joyce knew them from teenage experience – but merge with the obscenities of the unconscious: supremely so when whoremistress Bella Cohen becomes the male “Bello” in dominating a she-pig Bloom. You don’t get filthier than this, and McGovern delivered with full shameless panache. But there were other, less menacing, comic peaks in some of the sequences: when Bloom, humiliated in court, becomes the whipping-post of indignant society ladies, or, flipping to triumph, the regal founder of the new Bloomusalem. And then the strange beauty of the pastoral idyll, a kind of Joycean classical Walpurgis Night à la Goethe, rounded off by the pathos of Bloom’s dead son reappearing as gentle spirit. Barry McGovern reading 'Ulysses'That was my last time in the transfixing company of McGovern: while Molly Bloom wove her fantasies in the concluding “Penelope” and the final orgasm had the audience rising to its feet, I was steeped in Sibelius in a two-hour Zoom class. But then there was Bloomsday, and the local celebrations of Dublin’s greatest celebrant.

A less happy intermezzo came in a visit to the lovely Gate Theatre and The Tin Soldier, a kind of Hans Christian Andersen cabaret devised by the Gate and Theatre Lovett (★★). Drawing monotonously on the correspondences between Andersen’s fixations on his ugliness and outcast status and the protagonists of his fairy tales, the script by Louis Lovett and Nico Brown proved everything that Andersen’s writings are not: over-sentimental, self-pitying, banal.. Scene from The Tin SoldierNo doubt about it, the performers had talent. Lovett as actor (pictured above by Roz Colqohoun on the right with Conor Linehan) could run the gamut of Andersen’s divided selves, ventriloquizing dancer Kevn Coqualard as The Tin Solder’s Devil in the Box with impressive falsetto – repulsive, but intentionally so. Music director Linehan could play the piano beautifully, but the material was mostly of sub-Lloyd-Webber banality. The presence of boy singer Arthur Peregrine and vocalist Olesya Zdorovetska seemed puzzling. So much, lighting and production wise, was thrown at this venture, but to no avail. When you have a single actor of supreme character and the best material in the world, you need none of them.

The supreme tour de force came in the bewildering dreamscapes of 'Circe', split across Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning

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