Patrick FitzGerald first thought his moment had come in the early 1990s, when he was offered a lead role in a Hollywood rom-com. And then one of the casting agents saw a preview of a new film, a road movie about two women rebelling against the system, which featured a show-stealing cameo by an unknown actor named… Brad Pit.
FitzGerald was gazumped. Pitt got the role (the film turned out to be forgettable), and FitzGerald, who brings a new play to Dublin next month, returned to treading the boards off-Broadway, where he was steadily building a reputation as one of the leading young Irish actors in New York.
Then Sex and the City came along, and FitzGerald was seen for various roles, but passed over. More recently, he was seen for the current hit HBO series, Boardwalk Empire… six times.
By the time that came along, though, he had long realised the glamour of television was illusory. A stint playing an Irish priest in a Canadian horror series, Poltergeist: The Legacy, had awoken him to the bleakness of the tv actor’s life. Given lines about the Northern conflict that were crassly simplistic, he objected, and duly found his time in a dog collar cut abruptly short.
Subsequently, he turned his back on acting for a time, and tried his hand at journalism. As he struggled to “find his voice,” he found himself reading Ulysses again, and was captivated. This is a voice, he thought. He started trying to adapt it for the stage: “the only way I’m really going to understand it,” he thought, “is if I transpose it into a play, so that I really know who’s talking.”
The problem was, that play grew to being six hours long. Then he bumped into an old friend, English actress Cara Seymour – they had won Obie awards together in the mid 1990s, for a production of Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy.
With Seymour, FitzGerald reconceived his adaptation as a more modest, and stageable, two-hour play, featuring just Leopold and Molly Bloom. He called it Gibraltar, which is where the fictional Molly was born.
But even bringing this to the stage was arduous. They worked on the script, at weekends, for three and a half years. In the meantime, FitzGerald did some acting jobs, and paid his way with labouring work. When things got tight, he would move out of his apartment, go to stay with friends, and rent out his apartment to tourists.
Eventually, he secured a production: a short residency, one night a week, at a venue on the Bowery. Two nights before they opened, he got a call from a literary agent: had he secured the rights to Ulysses? The Joyce estate is notoriously litigious, he was warned.
There was a momentary panic, but a quick trip to Barnes & Noble reassured him: through a quirk of American copyright law, the 1922 first edition of Ulysses was in the public domain, even though all later editions were not.
They had full houses, and Gabriel Byrne wrote to FitzGerald that it was “a memorable night and a superb adaptation.” Now, FitzGerald brings it to Dublin, for a two-week run at the New Theatre from January 1 (see www.thenewtheatre.com).
His timing is impeccable. The day that Gibraltar opens is the day that Joyce’s work comes out of copyright in Europe – 70 years after his death. FitzGerald hopes to secure wider interest during this short run, and to have his adaptation staged again in summer, for Bloomsday.
But what of competition, I asked him. Might there not be a slew of adaptations of Ulysses, as soon as people realise it’s out of copyright? “Let them try it,” he joked. “It’s not easy. I’ve been at it for eight years…”
In any case, he says, the fact that Joyce is coming out of copyright is “a reason to celebrate”.
“Joyce needs to be rejuvenated. He needs to be taken away from academia.”
The actor who was nearly in Sex and the City might be just the man to do that. (Sex and the City… now there’s a title for an adaptation of Ulysses…)