The stage is perhaps not the best medium for showcasing the groundbreaking nature of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Stephen Joyce, the writer’s grandson, once said that allowing the famously unpunctuated stream of consciousness to be performed had been akin to “opening a Pandora’s box”; and yet its enduring impact and modernity are still welcomed by audiences, as a new French production at Paris’s Bouffes du Nord sets out to prove.
As expected, Molly Bloom is all about the acting, and prior knowledge of the story is certainly helpful. No director is credited, only an “adapter”, Jean Torrent, and the sets are reduced to the bare minimum: a bed, centre stage, where a man, Molly’s husband, lies sleeping as she starts to spin her thoughts into words. The production uses a new translation of Joyce by Tiphaine Samoyault, and it is a pleasure to hear: fluid yet candidly blunt when needed. It strives throughout to retain some of the original’s edge – some feat, since Joyce’s rhythm doesn’t sound nearly as odd in the rising, seemingly ever-unfinished spoken intonation of French.
Molly Bloom’s stream of thoughts may often keep overt emotion at arm’s length, but the production has a chameleon in Anouk Grinberg, utterly virtuosic in her evocation of the kaleidoscopic character. Grinberg, the daughter of the playwright Michel Vinaver, is a quiet achiever and has been a discreet yet vivid presence on stage and in film in France since the 1970s. Having performed public readings for many years, she is no stranger to monologues, and here holds the audience’s attention without a trace of effort.
She treads a fine line between dream and reality throughout, eyes half-closed, her breathing so subdued that the words seem to materialise from thin air. Clad in a flowery dressing gown over black tights and a grey nightdress, Grinberg opts for deliberate artlessness, hinting at a woman-child: her face framed by wild curls, she starts out fidgety on the edge of the bed, wriggling her legs like a restless insomniac. A light regional accent gives her speech a working-class sharpness, and she doesn’t try to enhance or soften the impact of Joyce’s sexually charged sentences. Sensual without turning petulant or vituperative, she is alive in a simple, direct way, speaking as if to herself only, and all the more moving for it.
With its threadbare charm, the Bouffes du Nord adds to the intimacy of the performance. This 19th-century theatre was abandoned in the 1950s, and when the British director Peter Brook brought it back to life in 1974, he decided against camouflaging the wear and tear that was showing everywhere. The result today is a sombre, intimate venue, designed like an amphitheatre around a curtainless stage. Its near-decrepit walls envelop Molly Bloom like the night, and the play exploits that atmosphere to the full.