Review: Holy Cow!

A rambunctious homage to Joyce’s modernist classic

By Lois Maskiell

Bloomsday in Melbourne’s homage to the modernist masterpiece ‘Ulysses’ is filled with the very wit and wordplay that gave the novel its place in the Western canon. This production titled Holy Cow! James Joyce Slaughters the Sacred Cows of English Literature is an original adaptation scripted by a team of Joycean experts. Running at Fortyfivedownstairs for a limited season, it’s a part of Melbourne’s 2018 Bloomsday celebrations that shouldn’t be missed.

The group of writers, including Graeme Anderson, Bruce Beswick, Steve Carey, Sian Cartwright, Frances Devlin-Glass and Di Silber, have focused on episode fourteen, ‘Oxen of the Sun’. This episode, famous for its parallel between the development of the child from the embryo and the development of English prose up to the late nineteenth century, is a linguistic marvel that makes for spectacularly verbal theatre.

Set in the National Maternity Hospital on Holles St Dublin, the play opens with a nun (May Jasper) and priest (Paul Robertson) who establish the production’s tone as the primary narrators. Their physically and comically rich performances are complemented by a voice-over of James Joyce (Eugene O’Rourke). The drama unfolds when protagonist Leopold Bloom (Hunter Perske) enters the hospital to check on Mina Purefoy (Liza Dennis) in the middle of her arduous labour, facilitated by an austere nurse (Bridget Sweeney).

Bloom’s pensive response to the situation highlights his own relationship with the continuation of his bloodline. This is contrasted to the shenanigans of his mostly younger friends Stephen Dedalus (Matthew Connell), Buck Mulligan (Mitchel Edwards), Francis ‘Punch’ Costello (Timothy Ian McMullin) and Dr Dixon (Johnathan Peck). Their wild commentary on birth and fertility, which is loosened by extravagant mead drinking, sparks much laughter.

Director, Jennifer Sarah Dean has crafted a droll theatrical experience alive with the atmosphere of an Irish pub. Aided by Alia Syed’s set design as well as lighting and sound by Alex Blackwell and Mitch Tabe, Dean’s stage devices complete the adaptation process with their strong dramatic and physical dimensions.

True to the Bloomsday tradition, Rhiannon Irving’s costumes are Edwardian-themed and characters pluck them from large boxes each dedicated to a particular century. As they work their way through the centuries language shifts accordingly until Donald Trump appears – performed by the diversely talented Sweeney – and here the text makes a fantastic collision with its present-day context.

Holy Cow! is a rambunctious and entertaining play that will have both die-hard fans of Joyce and anyone eager to encounter a glimpse of ‘Ulysses’ intrigued, amused and ready for the next episode.

Holy Cow! is being performed at Fortyfivedownstairs until 17 June.  Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9662 9966.

For more information about Melbourne in Bloomsday events take a look at their official website.