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A classic blooms again

When Dermot Bolger was first approached 18 years ago to write a stage adaptation of Ulysses, James Joyce's epic free-form novel set on the streets of Dublin, the playwright and novelist's immediate reaction was one of "sheer palpable terror," he remembers.

"The novel is 265,000 words long, so to adapt something like that for the stage is a huge thing to do. I remember I was terrified of writing plays and poems; and I tried and do the things I was terrified of."

Bolger has had to wait until Andy Arnold's forthcoming production at the Tron to see a full staging of his terror-induced take on Joyce's modernist classic, which charts a life in the day of Leopold Bloom via an experimental stream of consciousness technique that both scandalised and revolutionised contemporary literature. Bolger's original commission from the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, where Joyce's original manuscript is stored, came at a time when the novel was presumed to be out of copyright, and subsequently free of any restrictions imposed by the keepers of the Joyce estate.

"It came about at a period of time when copyright laws in Britain and Ireland were different," Bolger remembers. "The European Union harmonised them, so Ulysses was briefly out of copyright, then it went back in. Plays are like greyhounds: they can lose momentum on the second bend, but then they have a way of coming back."

Up until now, although originally mooted for a major production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, what was eventually published as A Dublin Bloom only ever received a reading at the University of Pennsylvania.

"It was at nine in the morning," Bolger remembers. "I wanted an audience of two men and a dog, but could only find two men."

Even so, Greg Doran's mini production only just about managed to avoid a skirmish with the Joyce estate. "They're quite rigid," Bolger says. "Between the Joyce estate and academics, a whole industry has grown up around Ulysses, which in many ways has put his work out of a lot of people's reach. The Abbey were refused to do Joyce's play, Exile, for instance, and on Bloomsday," he says of the annual celebration-cum-pub crawl of all things Ulysses, "it's said they have people going about trying to impose restrictions on readings of the book. So it's important the book is given back to the people.

"The book seems terribly contemporary to me. I can hear the voices of my city in it. But this industry of academics has created so much mystique about it that they have taken it away from ordinary people, so the people who Ulysses is about are afraid of it. James Joyce used to joke he was going to write a book that would keep scholars in work, and so it has proved. It's a difficult book but it's a very human book, and the basic story at its heart is easy to get hold of."

Even so, it was with "an enormous amount of trepidation" that Bolger took on Ulysses. "I knew I had to be respectful, and I also knew no playwright could do justice to Joyce. It's a big, complicated novel which over 18 episodes journeys into different styles; but they're incidental, and I knew there was no way I could do all 18 episodes because they're not all theatrical, so this version is a lot shorter.

"By the standards of Eugene O'Neill, it's a haiku. As a novelist, I recognise how a novel can derange. It's this huge tree that can go off in different ways, whereas a play is very linear and has to be like a time-bomb to keep the audience guessing and cut things back to the emotional heart.

"No woman ever existed in literature like Molly Bloom, and at the end it's just Molly talking. As a playwright I have to reimagine that. I think originally when writing it was like trying to write with one hand tied behind my back; having to keep one eye on the Joyce estate. Going back to it 15 years later, I just want to get to the emotional heart of the story. Whether the play is any good or not is down to me, not Joyce, but experts won't like it.

Now in the public domain, "Ulysses is almost like a lake you can swim in, and go as far out as you want to. If you're a deep-sea diver you're going to go out further, and if you want to be an expert, you can go in 20 or 30 times and still find something different, but you don't have to. There's a humour and a pathos and a humanity anyone can recognise."

The Tron production of Bolger's play, presented in association with the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, and The Everyman, Cork, came about after Arnold, a long-time aficionado of Irish literature and drama, heard Bolger on a radio programme while visiting family in Ireland. Having already directed major works by Samuel Beckett, Tom Murphy, Sean O'Casey and other greats from the Irish pantheon over the last two decades, Arnold had long been on the look-out for someone to adapt Ulysses.

"He thought I sounded interesting," says Bolger, "then he went onto my website, and he saw there was already an adaptation, and he got in touch."

Although Bolger's original work has rarely been seen in Scotland, Arnold was running the Arches in Glasgow when 7:84 Scotland Theatre Company presented a production of Bolger's 1989 debut play, The Lament for Arthur Cleary.

With 7:84 then under the post-John McGrath directorship of Iain Reekie, Bolger recalls the company's 1992 production well. "There was an awful lot of kissing, I seem to remember," he says. "It was a very good production, but it had the most liberal interpretation of the stage directions. I remember sitting with a map with all the places they were touring marked on it, and each day I'd look at where they were while I was at home in front of the fire, which is where writers should be."

Having written 11 novels, 14 plays and eight volumes of poetry in 30 years, the production of Ulysses arrives at a time when Bolger has only recently returned to writing following the death of his wife, Bernie, in 2010.

A new play, Tea Chests and Dreams, opened in Dublin in April. Bolger's latest project, The Fall of Ireland, is about "the catastrophe of the economic collapse of the last half decade, but it's also about a civil servant in China".

With people on his Dublin doorstep hit hard by the recession, this seems to relate to Ulysses. "The staged reading back then was really great," he says, "but seeing a full production will be something else again. That's what happens. As a prematurely bald middle-aged writer, you find out that life's a bit like Halley's Comet, and things tend to come around again."

Ulysses, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 12-27, before touring to Belfast, Dublin and Cork. Visit www.tron.co.uk.

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