Homer portrayed Odysseus as a man of outstanding wisdom and shrewdness, eloquence, courage and endurance. His wanderings and the recovery of his house and kingdom are the central themes of the Odyssey.
James Joyce, in Ulysses – the novel that shifts Homer to one June day in Dublin 1904 – makes his hero Leopold Bloom a man of similar qualities. Bloom is cautious, intelligent, sympathetic and similarly rooted in his family.
Odd then, that Menagerie’s production turns Bloom into a bit of a simpleton, a man who trips and fumbles and lacks the quiet sense of himself and his history that is so fundamental to Joyce’s character. Taking Bloom on a journey outside of the book should be a great catalyst for adventure and writer Richard Fredman has really let his imagination run loose here. The result is a muddled and only partially successful exploration of history, personal and universal.
The plot has the Leopold Bloom of 16 June 1904 meet a different version of himself, one who wants to take him to the future via the past. Actor Patrick Morris becomes fairly schizophrenic in his effort to converse with himself across centuries. It’s a bravura performance but one that would benefit from moments of stillness, less verbiage and more clarity in the dramaturgy.
A synopsis illustrates the complexity of ideas: it’s 1904 and Bloom is unable to perform his ablutions (readers of Ulysses will know that the description of Bloom’s morning dump caused outrage on publication). The cause of his blockage is that Bloom future has come to help him explore his provenance, in particular his Jewishness. We meet Bloom’s father, Rudolph Virag, a Jew who converted to Protestantism. What if Virag hadn’t fled Hungary? What if Bloom was transported to Auschwitz and made a camp Kapo? The experience might lead Bloom to name himself Baruch Bloomoso and lead his own tribe in an attempt to create Bloomtopia (a reference perhaps to Bloomusalem in the Circe chapter of Ulysses) and failing. If the future can’t help Bloom find his tribe, perhaps the present can, so the letter in his hat-band from daughter Milly is dated 24 May 2015. She is living on a Kibbutz in Israel, about to do National Service, concerned for her tribe and the one she is forced to oppose. As Bloom so aptly says, ‘out-shits history’ as the resurgence of anti-semitism in across Europe is noted.
These convoluted plot points are performed with energetic flare by Morris and some strong creative touches by director Rachel Aspinwall. Simple things like the calendar pages fading to blank and Virag as a Golem conjured from a sheet and a bucket. Movement around the stage, if frenetic, is well managed and the beautiful paper art of Reiko Wong provides a strong visual picture. The prose is aptly literary and inventive and there are some knowingly playful moments and some audience interaction. Given the experience of the company and the involvement of Cambridge Junction, the production is suitably well lit (designer Anna Barrett) and the sound design by Yas Clarke is very effective, battling against a noisy venue.
Bloominauschwitz is a dizzying 90 minutes that tries to cram in too many ideas and holds the actor hostage to stage business. To free Bloom from the page, walk him forwards or backwards, and investigate his Jewishness is a good basis for a play, but this version needs an edit and a less broadly drawn character. Fredman almost acknowledges this himself, when he has one Bloom proclaim: ‘You don’t know what the feck you’re doing’ and the other Bloom answer, ‘I’m having fun.’