In his lifetime, James Joyce considered the possibility of having Ulysses adapted into a movie—and even met once with Sergei Eisenstein about it.  After his death, two attempts were made in English: Joseph Strick’s 1967 Ulysses and Sean Walsh’s 2003 Bloom, both of which—like Marleen Gorris’ 1997 Mrs. Dalloway—sacrifice the spirit of the great novel in favor of narrative fidelity; a ridiculous decision for anyone familiar with a book that largely takes place in its protagonist’s head.  Why bother to follow Poldy around Dublin without translating Joyce’s innovations to their cinematic equivalents?  A bowel movement, a quick “frig” on the beach, and bedtime thoughts are not particularly interesting when viewed from the outside.  Mounting a stage version poses even more difficulties, since techniques like flashbacks, voiceovers, and rapid scene changes do not prove so easy.  And while Joyce considered theater the pinnacle of artistic creativity, he was not much of a playwright himself.  His one attempt, Exiles, is easily the weakest of his major works.

In many ways, then, Patrick Fitzgerald’s Gibraltar sets itself up for failure.  This two-actor “adaptation after James Joyce’s Ulysses” is performed on a small stage with Mr. Fitzgerald and Cara Seymour largely reciting passages from the book and acting out some of its key scenes.  They end up playing multiple parts, with Ms. Seymour juggling a total of eleven, including Bloom himself when Mr. Fitzgerald is otherwise engaged.  The result is something of a mess—if occasionally an interesting mess—and audience members who have not taken the plunge and read Joyce’s novel will likely be foundering in this ocean of internal monologue and rapidly moving associations. (One elderly lady asked at intermission, “Was Bloom disparaging the Jews?”)  For those who know and love Ulysses, it plays as little more than a glorified reading—and the readings last Bloomsday, accompanied by a pint of Guinness, somehow felt more appropriate.

When Charles Laughton was proposed for the role of Bloom, Joyce found him “too Aryan,” and the same could be said of Mr. Fitzgerald.  Bloom, after all, is a Jew in Dublin, a marginalized member of an already marginalized group, and Mr. Fitzgerald looks and sounds far too purebred Irish to tackle him.  Furthermore, he entirely excises Stephen Dedalus from his play, a gaping mistake when rewriting a story that is largely about fatherhood. (Stephen is mentioned briefly when Bloom buys one of his books which, wrongly, bears Joyce’s photograph on the back—a simplistic equating of author with character.)  Still, there are some nice moments.  My favorite four words in the book—“Me.  And me now.”—are read with wonderfully tender pain, and Ms. Seymour handles Molly’s final monologue with the right kind of naïve but frank curiosity.  Both, too, manage their constant character changes without looking too foolish and without surrendering too much verisimilitude.

Some of us will never tire of Ulysses and will take every opportunity we can to hear it read aloud and, hopefully, read differently than we expected.  Gibraltar is just meaty enough to both disappoint and surprise that crowd.  But if you aren’t a dedicated fan, it will probably just sound like verbal mush.

Gibraltar runs through July 28th at the Irish Repertory Theatre.  132 West 22nd Street  New York, NY.  2 hours.  One intermission.

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