“This bed was my ship and this ring was my compass, my one bearing, my only direction, this ring with your inscription, ‘from Penelope, your Ithaca’.”Throughout her characteristically passionate and witty post-show speech on Wednesday, Everyman & Playhouse AD Gemma Bodinetz was clutching a well-worn copy of Homer’s Odyssey, the one she’d used when studying ancient Greek. Back then, she told us, she just didn’t get how the Mediterranean and those familiar island holiday destinations could be the places of such peril and danger as Odysseus found them. But on reading the first draft of this new script it all became immediately clear, having inescapable resonance with images we’ve all seen in recent times of people washed up on beaches, having fled for their lives in unseaworthy boats.
Although this is a story that poet and playwright Simon Armitage and Director Nick Bagnall have been wanting to tell for some time, they could barely have chosen a better time to do it, for it brings, as Gemma observed, an urgent message about the way that society responds to strangers and the things that frighten us, whilst in this new treatment it still retains the timelessness of Homer’s text.
It is a hefty piece, coming in at 2hrs 45 by my watch, but it doesn’t feel like it, as the pace is well maintained throughout by a tremendously tight ensemble cast and very physical staging, on a dramatic set by Signe Beckmann. So much so, that I returned again 3 days later for another viewing from a slightly different angle, one of the joys of a space like the Everyman.
Colin Tierney played Odysseus in The Last Days of Troy at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, in which the same author and director left him marooned. Here all three are back to bring the character home on a fraught and dangerous journey where he and his shipmates encounter storms and terrifying creatures.
Armitage has chosen once again to re-tell an ancient text by running two parallel threads of narrative alongside one another. Rather than simply placing the Homeric characters in an updated working of the story, he uses an almost dream like rendering of the Odyssey woven in and out of his modern day tale, surfacing out of the shadows and then slipping back out of view scene-by-scene.
After a brief prologue from the goddess Athena, we meet our 21st century Odysseus, a Cumbrian government minister called Smith, who has the beer chilling in the fridge and is looking forward to settling down to watch the England v Turkey World Cup qualifier on TV, before celebrating his son’s 18th birthday. The Prime Minister has different ideas, needing to make an impression by sending someone to the game, so Smith has to make a shame-faced call to his wife Penelope, and apologise to his son Magnus before he boards the plane.
Shortly after the match, Smith and his aide get mixed up in a fight with some England fans, and social media goes into meltdown with a picture that appears to implicate him. He disappears off the radar as he tries to get home without being caught by the press, who are baying for his blood.
Back in Cumbria, the PM’s secretary and daughter Anthea (Athena in modern garb) pays the family a flying visit and delivers Magnus a birthday gift – a copy of Homer’s Odyssey.
As Magnus opens the book and begins to read, his father reappears with his fellow travellers, now transformed into Odysseus and his crew on board ship, and so we begin the epic journey home. The stories weave in and out of each other, with the trials of Odysseus mirroring events in the modern world. They encounter storms, strange lands, hostile people and mystical creatures including the lumbering Cyclops, counting his sheep Cumbrian fashion, the witch Circe and the lure of the Sirens. A pneumatic system sub-stage turns a central section into a ship, which pitches and rolls underfoot as the sailors navigate their course.
Simon Dutton plays the Prime Minister, analogous with Zeus, a larger than life figure who delivers some risky dialogue, but balances biting satire with a good deal of humour. Some of his speeches receive spontaneous applause from the audience. Dutton also appears as the blind ghost of Tiresius, and as the Cyclops, this latter bringing out some of the wit of Homer’s original in his battle with “nobody”.
There are strong performances too from the supporting cast. Polly Frame is Anthea/Athena, Susie Trayling is Penelope and Lee Armstrong is Magnus. Odysseus’s crew are Sule Rimi, Roger Evans and Chris Reilly, while David Hartley and Ranjit Krishnamma are a couple of predatory media hacks, doubling as the Cyclops’s hands and the Turkish bartender, and Danusia Samal is, among other characters, the mystical Circe who casts her porcine spell on the travellers.
It is, however, Colin Tierney’s Smith/Odysseus who steers the whole piece on its epic course, and he gives us a splendidly rounded characterisation of the dual role. It is also he who has the last word, as the play’s spine-chilling closing scene finally merges the twin threads together in a chilling, theatrical climax.
I initially covered this play in a review for The Stage (whose standard word limit concentrates the mind) but here I have the luxury of having been for a further viewing 3 days after press night, and I can be more subjective. I have also now been able to compare my opinion with the other reviewers who saw the same performance as I did and, as is often the case, am intrigued to see how we all saw the piece slightly differently. One reviewer felt that the pace was good in act 1 but slackened off in act 2, while another was polar opposite, finding the first act slow and the second much more engaging. For myself, I thought the pacing was held well throughout, although the length of the piece demands these strong performances to hold an audience. Initial reported run time at previews was just short of 3 hours including interval, but some cuts later it now runs at approximately 2hrs 45mins.
Signe Beckmann’s set presents a deceptively simple appearance, with a curved rear wall enveloping the back of an elliptical, stepped platform which occupies most of the Everyman’s thrust. The sheer scale of it, including some understage access and machinery, is going to be a technical challenge for the stage crew taking it on its tour, and it will also be intriguing to hear how it fares in the Jacobean surroundings of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, especially with its complex lighting script from Mike Robertson.
The score by James Fortune includes a few classical excerpts, including Dido’s Lament and Casta Diva, which punctuate his own mystical writing and his haunting siren song will quite probably drift through audience’s minds for days after they leave the theatre.
The Odyssey: Missing, Presumed Dead, is a co-production between Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse and English Touring Theatre. It runs until 17th October at Liverpool Everyman and then tours via Richmond Theatre, Theatre Royal Brighton, Shakespeare’s Globe, Cambridge Arts Theatre and Northcott Theatre Exeter, until 28th November.
|Colin Tierney in The Odyssey - Image (c) Gary Calton|