Anybody who’s listened to Radio 4 (or 4 Extra, or watched BBC2 or BBC4) at all over the last couple of weeks can’t have escaped the trailers promoting tomorrow’s Ulysses adaptation.
James Joyce’s literary masterpiece is one book I’ve never managed to read. Its 265,000 word count would be intimidating enough, but Joyce’s use of different styles — including some chapters written in a stream-of-conscious style, and one written as a play script. The tale of a day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom, his philandering wife Molly, and writer Stephen Dedalus — often taken to be an alter ego of Joyce himself — is celebrated each year on “Bloomsday”, June 16, the day on which the book’s events unfold.
To mark the occasion, Radio 4 is devoting much of Saturday’s output to a new dramatisation of the work, starting at 9.10am within Saturday Live and concluding just before midnight. The BBC has assembled a great cast: Henry Goodman as Bloom, Niamh Cusack as Molly, Andrew Scott as Dedalus and with Stephen Rea narrating.
I’m not usually a fan of having a narrator in a radio adaptation of a novel - too many a production has been marred by dumping chunks of dull exposition into the narrator’s mouth, rather than finding ways for the drama to extend out of the characters. For Ulysses, though, getting rid of the narrator would be criminal: there’s poetry in every line, and Rea’s warm presence throughout the day is a comforting guide to those who, like me, are coming to the characters and situations within the drama for the first time.
After getting a preview copy of all seven parts last week, I’ve devoured them — I’m currently about two-thirds of my way through listening to the whole thing for a second time. All the episodes will be available as MP3 downloads after transmission, and it’s really worth taking the time to download them.
The BBC’s website for this project also has some great supporting material, including interviews with the cast and creative teams behind this production. After Matt expressed his justifiable frustration with BBC television’s arts commissions yesterday, it’s worth noting that when the Corporation gets it right, as it has done with Ulysses, it’s unbeatable.