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Ulysses on the radio: a 29-hour epic is released from the archives to mark Bloomsday

With 38 actors performing 187 parts, RTÉ's dramatisation of Joyce's masterpiece was a mammoth undertaking. Sarah Mac Donald revisits the 29-hour production that is about to get its first airing since 1982

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Singing off the same hymn sheet: The Radio Éireann Players had to read their parts directly from the book while recording Ulysses in 1982

Singing off the same hymn sheet: The Radio Éireann Players had to read their parts directly from the book while recording Ulysses in 1982

'Simple story': James Joyce

'Simple story': James Joyce

Getty Images

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Singing off the same hymn sheet: The Radio Éireann Players had to read their parts directly from the book while recording Ulysses in 1982

'It's the book everybody wants to read but nobody has read, and this is a perfect way into it." Kevin Reynolds, series producer with RTÉ Radio's Drama on One, is speaking about the forthcoming 29 hour, 45 minute continuous broadcast of Ulysses on Bloomsday, June 16.

RTÉ Radio 1 Extra will broadcast the unabridged dramatised performance of James Joyce's masterpiece, beginning at 8am, the moment the novel's central characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, begin their journey through Dublin.

The epic production of Ulysses has only ever been aired in its entirety once before, on Bloomsday 1982 to celebrate the centenary of the writer's birth. Copyright restrictions, assiduously policed by the Joyce Estate, prevented the production getting a second airing before now. The death in January of Stephen Joyce, grandson of James Joyce and the executor of the author's literary estate, was instrumental in Reynolds' decision to set the production free from the archives.

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'Simple story': James Joyce

'Simple story': James Joyce

Getty Images

'Simple story': James Joyce

So too was the Covid-19 pandemic: the lockdown, he muses, led people to "go to art to make some sort of sense of the world".

The performance showed the Radio Éireann Players, known as the Rep, at "the height of their power," says Reynolds. "I couldn't imagine a project like that any more. It's the artistry of the production and the ambition of it. It is beautifully paced, brilliantly recorded. They didn't drop a syllable."

Because of the controversies and mistakes in different editions of Ulysses, the publisher, Bodley Head, stipulated that no script could be made. The actors were forced to read their parts directly from the book, where the font size was minuscule. Molly Bloom's soliloquy is a case in point. Pegg Monahan read the 4,391 words of Molly's continuous stream of consciousness directly from the novel, despite the infamous absence of punctuation. She got it done and dusted in a day. "It is two hours' broadcasting and she nailed it," says Reynolds.

Laurence Foster is a former commissioning editor of radio drama in RTÉ and was a member of the Rep that performed Ulysses. Thirty-eight actors played 187 parts and then there are at least another 50 vocalisations here and there, parts such as 'the blonde girl' or children in the playground.

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Bloomsday 2020.  Simon Morgan, Tom Fitzgerald and musician Luke Cosgrave outside Fitzgeralds pub in Glasthuile village  Picture; Gerry Mooney

Bloomsday 2020. Simon Morgan, Tom Fitzgerald and musician Luke Cosgrave outside Fitzgeralds pub in Glasthuile village Picture; Gerry Mooney

Bloomsday 2020.  Tom Fitzgerald and musician Luke Cosgrave outside his pub in Glasthuile village  Picture; Gerry Mooney

Bloomsday 2020. Tom Fitzgerald and musician Luke Cosgrave outside his pub in Glasthuile village Picture; Gerry Mooney

Bloomsday 2020.  Tom Fitzgerald enjoys an early morning pint with Ulysses in his pub in Glasthuile village  Picture; Gerry Mooney

Bloomsday 2020. Tom Fitzgerald enjoys an early morning pint with Ulysses in his pub in Glasthuile village Picture; Gerry Mooney

Bloomsday 2020.  Peter Caviston entertains early morning bathers at the Forty foot in Sandycove.  Picture; Gerry Mooney

Bloomsday 2020. Peter Caviston entertains early morning bathers at the Forty foot in Sandycove. Picture; Gerry Mooney

Bloomsday 2020. Michael Chester and Peter Caviston with his copy of Ulysses at the Forty foot in Sandycove.  Picture; Gerry Mooney

Bloomsday 2020. Michael Chester and Peter Caviston with his copy of Ulysses at the Forty foot in Sandycove. Picture; Gerry Mooney

Bloomsday 2020. Peter Caviston with his copy of Ulysses at the Forty foot in Sandycove.  Picture; Gerry Mooney

Bloomsday 2020. Peter Caviston with his copy of Ulysses at the Forty foot in Sandycove. Picture; Gerry Mooney

Bloomsday 2020.  Tom Fitzgerald enjoys an early morning pint with Ulysses in his pub in Glasthuile village  Picture; Gerry Mooney

Bloomsday 2020. Tom Fitzgerald enjoys an early morning pint with Ulysses in his pub in Glasthuile village Picture; Gerry Mooney

Tom Fitzgerald and Peter Caviston enjoy Bloomsday 2020 while social distancing in Glasthule village. Picture; Gerry Mooney

Tom Fitzgerald and Peter Caviston enjoy Bloomsday 2020 while social distancing in Glasthule village. Picture; Gerry Mooney

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Bloomsday 2020. Simon Morgan, Tom Fitzgerald and musician Luke Cosgrave outside Fitzgeralds pub in Glasthuile village Picture; Gerry Mooney

"It was dense, and we just flew by the seat of our pants trying to interpret it," the 76-year-old says. "But when you hear it, it makes total sense."

Foster played 18 characters, including Haines, the English student who visits Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus at the Martello Tower. He also played Samuel Pepys, and says he based him on Charles Laughton, who starred in the 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty. The director William Styles gave the actors scope to be creative and was never heavy-handed.

"Willie had been an actor. He studied at RADA and he was in the Gate Theatre with Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir. He let the actors be creative. He knew what we could and couldn't do and he picked the right person for the right part," says Foster.

Foster recounts some interesting nuggets of information about the Rep in his 2007 memoir, Rising Without Trace, including the fact that Séamus Forde and Aidan Grennell actually knew some of the novel's characters in real life.

Bloomsday will be a special occasion for Foster, but not just because of the opportunity to revisit his contribution to this major piece of audio art. He and his wife Pauline married 49 years ago on Bloomsday 1971. "I was stage director at the time for Edwards and MacLiammóir in the Gate Theatre and Pauline was a ballet dancer. It was the only week the two of us could get off," he says.

He puts much of the success of the radio production down to the dynamic between Styles and the sound supervisor Marcus Mac Donald (the present writer's father).

"The actors were exquisitely directed with great pace by William Styles and wonderfully recorded by Marcus Mac Donald. As an actor, I worked with Marcus; he was a specialist - a calm, cool, collected presence. Unless the director and the sound engineer work in tandem, the production doesn't get made."

One of the production legends recounts how Mac Donald used a number of tape machines, special acoustics and a piano to make Laurence Foster and Barbara McCaughey's rendition of 'My Girl is a Yorkshire Girl' sound like a singing piano. "The attention to detail in the sound effects and acoustics means listeners know they are in Nighttown and know they are in Holles Street Hospital. It will never be done again - it will never be topped," says Foster.

The 1982 recording was digitised in 2004. During the lockdown, Reynolds and his team edited the production down into 18 podcasts. "In fairness, no matter how you suffer from insomnia or no matter how big a Joycean you are, you won't stay with it for 29 hours and 45 mins and we don't expect you to," he says.

If you've never felt brave enough before, this is an ideal way to get into Joyce's masterpiece.

"We hope that people will dip in and out. That will be the joy of the website. If people miss anything, they can go back to it or they can pick one of the Reading Ulysses explainer programmes and then they can listen to the whole episode."

RTÉ hopes the transmission will inspire a new generation of Joyceans. To complement the broadcast, a website - rte.ie/culture/ulysses/ - has been launched containing Reading Ulysses, 20 'explainer' programmes hosted by two Joyce scholars: Fritz Senn and the late Gerry O'Flaherty.

It also includes an introductory programme with contributions from Edna O'Brien and Joseph O'Connor.

"If you've never felt brave enough before, this is an ideal way to get into Joyce's masterpiece," says Jim Jennings, director of content at RTÉ. It is, he states, an "unequalled moment in world broadcasting". The marathon 1982 broadcast was carried by live relay internationally and won a Jacob's Broadcasting Award.

For Reynolds, Ulysses is in some ways "a simple story" about 'normal people'. "Basically, it is about two guys who go for a walk, both are dressed in black, and both are carrying grief with them. There is eating and drinking in this book, you will find little things hidden under stones.

"It's hilarious, dramatic, literate, and it is erotic - the antics of Blazes Boylan and Molly Bloom would make the shenanigans of Connell and Marianne in Normal People look like a kiss behind the coal-shed. It is a great book, but people are afraid of it. We're saying, come to the website, we will guide you and Ulysses will become your friend for life."

'Ulysses' is broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 Extra from 8am on June 16. A podcast edition will be available at rte.ie/culture/ulysses/

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