By Tulis McCall
Himself and Nora clocks in at a bit over 2 hours. And that would be about 1 hour too long. Not because of the extraordinary talent of it’s two leads Himself and Nora; Matt Bogart (James Joyce) and Whitney Bashor (Nora Barnacle) but because the text of this story excludes the point of the tale, Joyce’s words, and instead invests its time in showing us scenes from a relationship that are no match for his prose.
This tale begins with the end. It is 1941 and Joyce (Matt Bogart) has just died as the result of a perforated ulcer. The Priest (Zachary Prince) is praying over the body when Nora (Whitney Bashor) arrives – 15 minutes too late. Instead of joining in the prayers she lays into Joyce with such fury and foul language that she succeeds in raising the dead.
We then zoom back to the beginning of their relationship nearly 40 years earlier. Joyce’s mother is dying and he is scribbling, as he does throughout. Soon he crosses paths with Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid with an independent streak and no hesitation in stating what she wants. Joyce and Nora are passionate about words, each other and passion itself. Nora wants more than just a man, she wants an equal partner. Joyce promises her his devotion as well as a book he will write based on the day of their conversation: June 16, 1904. This becomes Ulysses.
These two are not cut from ordinary cloth, and Joyce can feel the pressure of the English, who took Ireland’s language and dignity, as well as the Catholic Church that is just as demanding as the Brits. Joyce will not kneel for either. Instead he will leave his home and take Nora with him. The hitch is that they will not be married, which would make Nora a whore in the eyes of the world. But she agrees – no small thing that.
They go through years of tough times in Europe with little or no money. In addition Joyce’s eyesight begins to fail. And of course there is the drinking. Through all of this Nora stands fast – speaking her mind and refusing to leave. They have two children. Joyce keeps writing.
To cure his block he travels back to Ireland with Nora’s blessing. He writes and writes with little success. He returns to Trieste. It is not until he receives an out of the blue offer from Ezra Pound to come to Paris – all expenses paid (by Harriet Shaw Weaver whose identity is glossed over) – where he will find welcome. He does and meets Sylvia Beach of the now famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. Beach was a patron to expats such as Pound, and it was she who published Ulysses in 1922. While life took a turn for the better, there were still challenges to face – as in the delay in the US publication by Bennet Cerf in 1934.
Joyce is always at the center of scandal – whether it is the family secrets he reveals or the obscenity in his prose or the drink he consumes and the women he has. Eventually, and here the author says it is because that Nora threatens to leave Joyce, the two are married. But this is not enough to lift the clouds of misfortune. Their daughter Lucia is mentally ill and must be sent to an asylum. The war is coming and they leave Italy (and their daughter) for Zurich. Within months, Joyce was dead.
And we are back where we started.
In all of this to-ing and fro-ing we never get to the nut of the matter. We never hear the words that shook the world of Western literature. Brielle talks about the conflict without entering into its depths by lettings hear Joyce’s writing. We stay on the surface, despite these excellent performances.
The only place for the story to go, when avoiding the meat of the matter, is into the relationship of Nora and Joyce. The journey they took together is a thing of wonder and beauty. Once the love and passion is established, however, the story pretty much stalls out and the music becomes repetitive. The songs have three flavors: Irish jig, English music hall bawd, Brechtian dirge. In addition there are light fluffy songs that serve to take up time but contribute little: teaching Irish county names to Italians, Ezra Pound extolling Joyce to Harriet Weaver, and the Joyce children’s ditty. A nod to the performers (Zachary Prince, Matt Bogart and Michael McCormick) who are so excellent at executing their many roles that at times you think they must be different actors. And the Orchestra under the direction of James Sampliner is nothing short of superb.
All the technical requirements are spot on, with the exception of the Irish accents that are inconsistent, but it is not enough to reach out and grab us where it counts. The upshot is that, while well intentioned, this production succeeds only in sending us all out of the theatre directly to the library to read, perhaps for the first time, the words of the writer who changed Western literature. That’s worth something.
HIMSELF AND NORA by Jonathan Brielle, Directed by Michael Bush
WITH Matt Bogart, Whitney Bashor, Lianne Marie Dobbs, Michael McCormick, and Zachary Prince
Musical direction by James Sampliner, choreography by Kelli Barclay, set design by Paul Tate dePoo III, costume design by Amy Clark, lighting design by Jason Lyons, and sound design by Keith Caggiano.
Minetta Lane Theatre, (18 Minetta Lane, between Sixth Avenue and MacDougal Street) beginning May 14th. Opening night is Monday, June 6th. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2pm and 8pm, Thursdays at 8pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets for Himself and Nora are $89 with premium and gold seating available. Tickets can be purchased by visiting www.HimselfandNoraMusical.com, www.Ticketmaster.com, or calling (800) 745-3000.