Written by Richard Fredman and directed by Rachel Aspinwall, bloominauschwitz is a one-man show performed magnificently by Patrick Morris. It is a Menagerie Theatre Company production previously seen at the 2015 Brighton Fringe, where it won the Best New Play Award. It imagines Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses, breaking out from the pages of James Joyce’s 1922 modernist masterpiece and entering the future. If it sounds surreal, that’s because it is; embracing a Beckettian ethos which sees Bloom frequently strutting around the stage with his trousers down.
The play focuses on an often overlooked aspect of Leopold Bloom: his Jewishness, or rather his imperfect Jewishness. Bloom is horrified when he realises that he is an uncircumcised Jew who eats pork, and a lot of the play deals with him trying to come to terms with his father’s memory. Patrick Morris takes on a number of personas, such as the Bloom of Joyce’s novel, a mysterious Bloom from the future, and Bloom’s father. Later, when Bloom finds himself an inmate in Auschwitz, Morris becomes a barking Nazi guard. His dexterity as an actor is astonishing, and he remains vigorous and energetic throughout the 80-minute show. Good use is made of props, such as paper people chains that are used as a symbol of Jews across the world. There is even some audience participation, and the small size of the venue at St John’s Hall creates a sense of intimacy between spectator and performer. The stage is less minimalist than you might expect, with a number of objects such as a door, a toilet, and stacked white boxes which represent the pages of Ulysses.
Dressed in black bowler hat and suit, Morris seems like the real Leopold Bloom, and at times he reads from and acts out scenes from the book. The play occasionally manages to be genuinely powerful and moving, especially the scenes set in Auschwitz. However, the attempts at humorous levity don’t quite pay off, with the sight – and sound – of Bloom on the toilet quickly losing whatever comic potential it had. Ultimately, the play ends up feeling imbalanced; a tragicomedy leaning more towards comedy, but dealing with the most tragic of circumstances.
Similarly, attempts to link the play to contemporary events, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, fail to gel, and bloominauschwitz – despite its bold title – seems unsure about what it wants to be. Is it a retelling of Ulysses, an exploration of the horrifying legacy of the Holocaust, or a subtle critique of the modern Israeli government? By trying to be all three at once, it manages to be none of them, and so the play, for all its merit, ultimately fails to live up to the potential in its innovative concept.
Part of the Just Festival programme of plays, bloominauschwitz succeeds in politically engaging its audience members whilst at the same time entertaining them through the antics of Leopold Bloom, performed tremendously by Patrick Morris. If you’re a fan of Ulysses – or even if not – this play is worth a watch, even if it does start to drag towards the end.
Just Festival at St John’s Church (Venue 127)
4, 6-11, 13-15, 17-18, 20-25 August
Image: Menagerie Theatre Company