Yes festival review – a marvellous appreciation of Molly Bloom

<span>Laila el Bazi and Jolanda Bazzi of The Sixteen Nations performing at Yes festival, in front of the Derry Girls mural in Derry.</span><span>Photograph: Lorcan Doherty</span>
Laila el Bazi and Jolanda Bazzi of The Sixteen Nations performing at Yes festival, in front of the Derry Girls mural in Derry.Photograph: Lorcan Doherty

On a green hill, dark grey slabs form an imposing, circular structure: An Grianán of Aileach. Looking out from the highest of the three terraces within this ancient hillfort, we command a 360-degree view over land and water: Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula. Standing at its centre, on green grass, enclosed within its walls, we see, above us, only clouds. Voices rise in harmony: Irish folk musicians the Henry Girls. A harp shivers notes; a bird sings. Centuries dissolve into an eternal instant.

Yes festival is the culminating stage of Ulysses: European Odyssey, a two-year, peripatetic, pan-European celebration of the anniversary of the publication, in 1922, of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. The project was conceived by Seán Doran and Liam Browne (AKA DoranBrowne, of Arts Over Borders), who have form when it comes to imaginative, writer-inspired festivals (they were behind Happy Days, Enniskillen’s international Beckett festival and Liverpool’s Sgt Pepper at 50).

Since 2022, artists in 18 cities across 16 European countries, have been responding to social and cultural themes in each of Ulysses’ 18 episodes. Now, in Derry and Donegal, artists from these Sixteen Nations join UK and Irish politicians, activists, journalists, former factory girls, schoolchildren and senior citizens in this culminating, four-day Yes festival. The first, female-led festival to be held on the island of Ireland, Yes is curated by a six-strong team (including one man). They have woven together a joyous, tantalisingly packed programme of talks, performances, screenings and exhibitions.

Joyce’s novel charts a day in the life of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus as they travel around Dublin, separately and, occasionally, together on 16 June 1904, a date now commemorated by fans around the world as Bloomsday. Its 18th section closes with Molly Bloom, in bed, in the early hours of the morning, remembering, among other things, early meetings with Leopold, her husband. Molly’s soliloquy begins “Yes” and concludes some 50, almost entirely unpunctuated pages later: “… so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” Dublin singer Imelda May, who read from the soliloquy as part of her concert/discussion performance, described it, beforehand, on Radio 4, as: “One of the best documented pieces of a female orgasm.”

In Derry’s Ebrington Square The Molly Bed (created by the designer Tracey Lindsay) adds supersize, curving billows to the sharp lines of the square, site of the former British barracks. Beneath a white sheet stretches a prone form, surrounded by flowers. Beside her, an outline or shadow suggests her husband, Leopold, his head by her feet. Both pillows are empty, leaving viewers to conjure images of the sleepers.

Were Molly able to look across Ebrington Square over the River Foyle and the Peace Bridge to the city itself, still circled, as in medieval times, by grey stone walls, she might notice a cinema named Volta (after the cinematograph set up in Dublin by Joyce). Inside, The Molly Films are being screened. A set of newly commissioned shorts, sensitively shot by the Ukrainian artist Sophie Muzychenko, brings Molly’s words to life. By connecting Molly to their own particular stages in life, Adjoa Andoh, Eve Hewson, Siobhán McSweeney (Sister Michael from the local hit TV series Derry Girls), Fiona Shaw and Harriet Walter all open up new perspectives connecting her with us.

Some of the most moving aspects of the festival involved physicality as well as emotions. Dance-In!, a public, participatory celebration of the “factory girls” from Derry’s now-defunct shirt-manufacturers, was devised by Marseilles-based team gethan&myles. Well-schooled young teams from the region deliver impressive displays while spectators are welcomed on to the dancefloor by the former “girls” during the concluding tea-dance to live, 50s/60s music. Sirencircus responds to the Sirens episode in Ulysses with an aural performance involving more than 100 musician/ participants inspired by John Cage’s Musicircus (described by Cage as a piece for “any number of performers willing to perform in the same place at the same time”). At first, the cacophony seems chaotic. Gradually, it shifts and reshapes as we walk among drummers, singers, actors, harpists, guitarist, keyboard-players… Transformational, enormous fun and astoundingly well put together by the rigorously focused, quietly amused, brilliant local performers of all ages. Margaret Kelly curated both events.

The Yes festival closes with an innovation of its own: Molly Bloomsday, intended as annual companion to Bloomsday. What would Molly say to this, with its Molly’s Parade, unprecedented mix of bands from both sides of the city, marching along the city walls, setting spectators’ feet tapping? Might her response be as unpredictable as herself? Yes, I reckon. Yes!

The Molly Films are available online until 24 June