This section of the book offers a wittily downmarket parallel to the scene in the Odyssey where Homer's shipwrecked hero discovers a lovely young princess playing with friends by the sea and addresses her as a goddess. On the shore at Sandymount, Bloom, a small- time Jewish ad-canvasser and Joyce's 20th-century Everyman, exchanges increasingly meaningful glances with Gerty MacDowell, an adolescent whose romantic soul tends to take refuge from its sexual longings in winsome euphemism and 'poetic' flights.
She is turned on, though, by the worship in Bloom's eyes, an act of adoration which is in droll counterpoint to the Benediction Service audibly taking place in a nearby church. Exposure of the Blessed Sacrament indoors; exposure of undies out of doors. There's a firework display, too, and Bloom explodes sexually at the same moment as a shooting rocket.
Not that Joyce gives us a peeping tom's home video of this occasion. What makes the piece more of a challenge to stage is that the episode is conveyed for some time through a pastiche of archly novelletish prose which dramatises the would-be elevation of Gerty's self-image ('Often she wondered why you couldn't eat something poetical like violets or roses . . .') with fulsome sugariness, while also indicating, through propriety and prurience, the desires this idiom fails to sublimate.
Because it offers both a representation of Gerty and a third-person rapturous commentary on her, Sarah Harper's wonderful performance brings out the comically autoerotic side of Gerty's imaginings, as the actress's hand and voice pore in fetishistic wonder over the delights, say, of her own instep, and she veers between the scandalised and the scandal-seeking. Olivia Fuchs' spare production (sea represented by a trail of blue drapery, for example) is also very good at pacing through Gerty's vapourings the couple's growing awareness of each other, as when, miming how she mixes her excellent puddings, she is just about to lick a laden finger when she notices Bloom's glance and guiltily affects not to like 'the eating part'.
Up to Bloom's ejaculation, the production moves through a beautifully judged arc of mutual masturbatory tension and reciprocal understanding, but after that becomes anticlimatic in more senses than one. It's true that part of Gerty's attraction to Bloom is that he looks foreign and she likes to think of herself as being set apart, too. But was it really wise to give the role of a Dublin Jew to a Frenchman, Jacques Bourgaux, who acts out Bloom's inner monologue with quite inappropriate Chevalier-esque roguishness. When he sings 'Those Pretty Little Seaside Girls', you feel it's a mistake for 'Thank 'Eavens for Leetle Girls'. Given the lop-sidedness of the acting quality and the central activity, perhaps this duet should be called a 'one-hander'.
To 19 Mar. Hen and Chickens, London N1 (071-704 2001)
Correction: there was a transmission error in yesterday's review, which resulted in a howler equivalent to claiming that Noel Coward was a top Tudor dramatist. Aeschylus, Sophocles et al hail, of course, from the sixth and fifth century BC not the first. Apologies.