Radio 4 to dramatise Ulysses

Station announces five-and-a-half-hour celebration of James Joyce's 'difficult' novel on 16 June – 'Bloomsday'

James Joyce's Ulysses is notoriously difficult and lurks unread on many a bookshelf. But Radio 4 is about to take the effort out of wrestling with the modernist classic with plans to air what it claims is the novel's first full-length dramatisation in Britain.

The network is to air its five-and-a-half-hour adaptation of the novel in seven chunks over one day on 16 June, known by Joyce aficionados as Bloomsday after the protagonist and because it is the date on which the book is set.

Featuring a cast of 24, the dramatisation is part of a celebration marking 90 years since the novel was published in 1922.

Radio 4's commissioning editor of drama, Jeremy Howe, promises that the adaptation will "not be Ulysses lite" – though he admits that no drama could possibly cram in the book's 265,000 words. In 1982 the whole book was broadcast by the Irish radio station RTE, but this lasted 29 hours and 45 minutes. In the same year, an obscure musical version written by Anthony Burgess called Blooms of Dublin was broadcast by Radio 3.

Howe said the book represented a work of literature that many Radio 4 listeners would want to have read but probably had not found the time. "But they will want to hear it as it is written," he said.

The sexually explicit sections of the book, including Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy, will air in the late evening. "Fortunately the sex comes late in the book, so it will be broadcast late at night," said Howe.

Set on 16 June 1904, the day Joyce had his first date with his future, much loved wife, Nora Barnacle, it focuses on two men, Leopold Bloom, an advertising agent, and Stephen Dedalus, often seen as Joyce's alter ego, who will be played by Henry Goodman and Andrew Scott respectively. Stephen Rea will narrate, while Niamh Cusack voices Molly Bloom.

As part of the celebration, Goodman, in character, will also cook a "Bloom breakfast" of devilled kidneys live in the Today studio. Sections of the day will be anchored by journalist Mark Lawson, who will journey around the main Dublin landmarks from the book as well as hosting a late-night discussion with academics and writers.

Radio 4's controller, Gywneth Williams, said she "expected a large postbag" from listeners about the decision to hand over much of the day to Joyce but hoped that most of them would be positive. "Listeners are up for quite a lot on Radio 4 as long as they feel it's in the grain of what's right for Radio 4," she said. "They are more tolerant of changes than they are given credit for."

Describing Ulysses as a "life-enhancing, ebullient thing full of glory", Williams said it had a "tremendously contemporary resonance focusing on the private and the ordinary".

She added that the commission was part of a drive to bring Radio 4's dramas and cultural coverage to greater public attention. The network, which regularly attracts around 1m listeners with its afternoon drama slot, says that about as many people listen in to Radio 4's afternoon drama each day as pay for tickets to the National Theatre's three venues in a year.

One anxiety for all at Radio 4 is the unreliable Irish weather, as Lawson will be broadcasting live. "Ulysses is set on a sunny day, but I bet it rains," said Howe.


Ben Dowell

The GuardianTramp

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