Eartha Kitt is not best known for her acting. But when Orson Welles discovered her in a Paris cabaret bar in 1951, he immediately cast her as Helen in his stage version of Dr Faustus. Now, at the age of 66, Kitt is playing Molly Bloom, the heroine of James Joyce's novel Ulysses, in an erotic monologue punctuated with songs by the French crooner, Charles Aznavour. Eartha Kitt could probably fill the Church Hill Theatre in Morningside just by cutting her toenails, but the bizarre prospect of seeing her perform James Joyce is drawing crowds from every conceivable corner of Festival society. The monologue, later to be developed into a full-length play, is the cult hit of the Festival.
The adaptor and director of Yes, Steven Rumbelow, believes the character of Molly, popular singer and overwhelming sexual force in the life of Joyce's hero, Leopold Bloom, is a neat fit for Kitt. It was, after all, the explicit passages in Molly's monologue which caused Ulysses to be burned by the New York postal authorities in 1922 and prevented its publication in Britain until 1936. For Kitt, who was blackballed in the 1960s by the CIA on the grounds that she was a 'sadistic nymphomaniac', this is home ground. 'What he wrote is what I feel,' says Kitt of Joyce.
Molly Bloom's monologue is a stream-of-consciousness rebellion against the simple oppressions of her marriage and society. For Kitt, these convert into a battle cry against every kind of oppression. 'We are constantly looking for freedom, but it seems more and more difficult to obtain,' she says. 'The older I get the more restrictive society gets.'
Kitt's brassy, exotic reading of Molly's character will have some Joyce aficionados choking on their Jameson's. 'You can't expect an Irish Molly from 1904,' says Rumbelow. 'Orson Welles said that Eartha was 'Every Woman' and I have tailored Molly to fit her. It's a way of making James Joyce's words work for 1994. You have an exotic old woman on stage thinking the same thoughts that Molly thought in 1904. I have succeeded in making Molly Bloom into light entertainment.'
Talking to Kitt, however, you get the distinct impression that no entertainment is light. 'Molly Bloom is on the verge of insanity,' she says. 'She has never been able to say that she is self-sufficient or that she wants a man in her life who really deserves her. She is a woman talking to women.' For Kitt, that address is inescapably personal. 'Everything in my performance comes from my own feelings. Maybe in the end I will put so much of my own life into the show that I won't need Molly any more to say these things through.'
Kitt shakes with passion at every word on stage and sings as if she had a skewer through her heart. And it seems that the sensitivity goes both ways. 'Performing is a very sensuous act,' she says. 'I rely on the audience more than the director to give me the reality of the character.'
This, says Kitt, is the whole point of being at the Edinburgh Festival. 'This work is at a very early stage, and Edinburgh is one of the last places in the world where you can genuinely try something out. The audience understands what's going on and they know that they are part of the process. When this piece is finished, I'd like to bring it back to show them: 'This is what you helped me do.' '
James F Wood, Edinburgh pensioner: 'She slipped in and out of bed without a single coarse movement. I have always wanted to see her. I was three rows from the front and I didn't hear a word she said. I am extremely satisfied.'
Karine Neill, Edinburgh resident (33): 'I came to see her body. But everything she says is so true about women. True then, true now, true in the future.'
Andrew Brown, director of Edinburgh's 369 Gallery: 'She's a genius. I hate James Joyce. But she makes it like Greek Tragedy. I want to see her doing Medea.'
Gill Clarke, choreographer of the Gandini Juggling Project: 'The combination of Eartha Kitt with James Joyce is extraordinary. It didn't work, of course, but I wouldn't have missed it.'
Eartha Kitt Appears in 'Yes' at the Church Hill Theatre, Morningside Rd, at 10.25pm, to 28 Aug (031-447 0111). Details of extra performances from the venue.
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