The inside story RTÉ’s Ulysses marathon: 33 actors, 400 parts, 30 hours of remarkable broadcasting

Dubliners who had long been intimidated by the book found they enjoyed it

RTÉ Players record ‘Ulysses’ (1982) L-R: Daphne Carroll, Paddy Dawson, Cathryn Brennan, Denis Staunton, Marcella O’Riordan, Conor Farrington, Kate Minogue, Eamonn Keane, Gerry McArdle

RTÉ Players record ‘Ulysses’ (1982) L-R: Daphne Carroll, Paddy Dawson, Cathryn Brennan, Denis Staunton, Marcella O’Riordan, Conor Farrington, Kate Minogue, Eamonn Keane, Gerry McArdle

 

Britain had just defeated Argentina in the Falklands, Israeli forces were shelling Beirut, Charles J Haughey’s government was hanging by a thread and a constitutional amendment banning abortion was being drafted. But Dublin’s mind was elsewhere on June 16th, 1982 as the city celebrated the centenary of James Joyce’s birth with a mammoth Bloomsday festival.

Anthony Burgess, Jorge Luis Borges and William Empson joined Richard Ellmann and Hugh Kenner at the Mansion House and Haughey hosted a reception for 700 Joyceans at Dublin Castle, serving Jameson and canapes. But Joyce’s words were everywhere in the city that day because from 6.30am until the following afternoon, RTÉ Radio broadcast a complete reading of Ulysses lasting almost 30 hours.

Listening on transistor radios and Walkmans, many Dubliners who had long been intimidated by the book found that they not only understood it but enjoyed it and recognised themselves in it.

“Has there been a comparably notable experience in the history of radio programmes since Orson Welles scared the great American public out of its fireside wits with his version of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds nearly half a century ago?” The Irish Times asked in an editorial.

“The voices of the RTÉ readers became the medium for Joyce’s living words. The writer’s poor sight and fondness for singing surely must have affected the conspicuous musicality of his prose: he wrote to be listened to rather than read, so that Ulysses in its radio shape was shown to be an epic ballad.”

It was a sharp departure from our usual routine of recording a number of plays each week

The recording, which will be broadcast in full on RTÉ Radio One Extra from 8am next Tuesday (June 16th) and is available on rte.ie/ulysses, includes every word in the novel. But it is as much a dramatisation as a reading, with 33 actors playing more than 400 parts.

As a 20 year-old actor in the RTÉ Players when the company spent most of 1981 on the project, I played a number of small parts including Ned Lambert and Lyster, the Quaker librarian and various voices that ensured I was at most of the rehearsals and recordings. It was a sharp departure from our usual routine of recording a number of plays each week in various formats and the daily soap opera Harbour Hotel (in which I appeared as George Counihan, a villain from Cork).

The director was Willie Styles, a former actor from New Zealand who had trained at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) before moving to Dublin to work with Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards. MacLiammóir called him Hazel (“because I look like a squirrel”) and Styles, a short, slight figure with a serious stammer who drove an MG sports car, was part of a fairly discreet, moderately artistic gay scene in Dublin.

He was RTÉ’s most talented radio drama director by a distance and one of the most accomplished in the world, winning a succession of international awards as he embraced each technological advance. He worked on Ulysses with Marcus McDonald, a sound engineer who shared both his fastidiousness and his appetite for experimentation in sound.

Bloom is played by the inscrutable Ronnie Walsh, a cunning piece of casting by Styles that turned the actor’s opaqueness to an advantage in the role of Everyman

The textual adviser was Roland McHugh, an entomologist whose interest in the acoustics of grasshoppers led him to become an expert on Finnegans Wake. McHugh’s first challenge was to go through the text working out which words should be spoken by whom, with some chapters involving multiple narrators as well as characters. He decided that the Sirens chapter, which is set in the Ormond Hotel, should have four narrators.

“If you listen to it, the thing starts with Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy talking and you’ve got a narrator for them. And that goes on for about four pages I think and then you switch to Bloom and he gets a separate narrator. So we’re jumping backwards and forwards between those two narrators until we get about halfway through the thing and then a third narrator comes in and mostly says short things about the coach that Blazes Boylan is travelling in. And then towards the end there’s a fourth for the piano tuner. Those four narrators seemed to me to make a lot more sense of the thing,” he said.

The main narrator is Conor Farrington, a playwright and a poet as well as an actor whose gentle erudition and sensitivity to the text made him a kind of companion through Ulysses for the listener. Bloom is played by the inscrutable Ronnie Walsh, a cunning piece of casting by Styles that turned the actor’s opaqueness to an advantage in the role of Everyman.

Paddy Dawson, who plays Stephen Dedalus, recalls discussions during rehearsals between McHugh and some of the older, Dublin-born actors like Seamus Forde and Brendan Cauldwell about interpreting the text. Styles tended to sit back and allow the actors to find their voice.

“He had a big ship to steer with a lot of elements and a big cast and he had this work which had become as famous as the Bible. So he had a lot to deal with. He kind of gave me my head if he was happy and didn’t interfere too much,” he said.

Gerry McArdle, who plays Buck Mulligan, agrees about Styles’s non-interventionist approach and credits the older members of the company for much of the best advice he received.

Some of the actors, including Pegg Monahan as Molly Bloom, had been in the company since the day it was founded as the Radio Éireann Players in 1947. It was the first fulltime radio repertory company in the English-speaking world and the actors were classified for bureaucratic purposes as “temporary unestablished civil servants”. They were exempt from the ban on married women keeping their jobs because of the need for mature female voices.

The company’s repertoire ranged from Sophocles and Shakespeare to new plays by Irish and European playwrights and a daily serial, The Foley Family. They brought drama to a mass audience and provided a training ground and an income for emerging writers including Brendan Behan, whose first plays were written for radio.

Television pushed radio aside in the 1960s and 1970s and in the months before Ulysses was made, the RTÉ Players were unhappy and demoralised. Embroiled in a long pay dispute with a management at RTÉ that increasingly viewed radio drama, along with the orchestras, as an expensive encumbrance, discipline was fraying.

You have to see through the mind’s eye and you have to bring up an incredible energy that converts the voice into painting pictures

The sheer ambition of the project had a galvanising effect as months of schedules were abandoned and replaced with repeats while Ulysses took over three days every week. In the months that followed, the actors revealed themselves and the more experienced, including Monahan, showed their unparalleled understanding of the medium and the microphone.

When she was recording Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, Monahan worked alone for days in what was effectively a closed studio with only Styles and McDonald in the control room. It was not, as some at RTÉ speculated, because she was prudish about the text but because she required such focus to produce the remarkable performance she gave.

Laurence Foster, an actor in the company who later became an energetic and innovative head of radio drama at RTÉ, says the medium makes specific demands on an actor.

“You have to get inside your own head – it’s a very selfish medium. You have to believe what you’re saying. You have to see through the mind’s eye and you have to bring up an incredible energy that converts the voice into painting pictures. The voice has to get a dynamic and a colour and a resonance and a rhythm,” he says.

“You don’t play to the other person. The microphone is the audience and the audience’s ear. And when you get that into your head that you’re whispering into their ear, you don’t need a huge amount of voice. You just need a dynamic.”

Radio drama is having a renaissance around the world through audio fiction podcasts and the popularity of audiobooks. The BBC last year produced an abridged, dramatised reading of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which was broadcast over a weekend on Radio 4.

Coronavirus has given radio drama a further boost and the BBC this weekend starts a series of socially-distanced adaptations of stage plays. All India Radio made its most popular radio plays and serials available online during the lockdown and LA Theatre Works, which has been producing radio plays since the 1970s, has seen its streaming, podcast and audio sales double.

“It’s economical, it’s portable. There are blind people who value it, there are people in prisons, in nursing homes. There’s a massive population out there,” Foster says.

After the Bloomsday broadcast in 1982, RTÉ made a series of unsuccessful efforts to make money out of Ulysses by selling it first on cassettes and later on CDs. It will now be available free online to listen to any time you want. But as The Irish Times observed after the first broadcast, listening to the entire book continuously is an experience of a different order entirely.

“When the seamless broadcast ended, many listeners must have discovered withdrawal symptoms,” the editorial said.

“It was as good as that, as pervasive as that, as addictive as that. There’s not a prize worthy of it, taking the idea, the execution and the performance all together.”

Ulysses will be broadcast on RTÉ Radio One Extra on Tuesday, June 16th from 8am and it is available at rte.ie/ulysses.

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