Writer: Simon Armitage
Director: Nick Bagnall
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
Having previously collaborated on The Last Days of Troy – an adaptation of Homer’s The Iliad – poet and playwright Simon Armitage and director Nick Bagnall have turned their attention to the sequel, Odyssey and produced a bold and witty re-imagining of the classic poem.
Beginning in present-day Britain, government minister Smith (Colin Tierney) is told by the Prime Minister to act as the party representative at a World Cup qualifier in Istanbul between England and Turkey. What is supposed to be a positive public relations stunt goes terribly wrong, however, when Smith ends up involved in a bar brawl where a young woman is seriously injured. With an international scandal brewing and Turkish authorities on his trail, Smith flees and it is here that his odyssey really begins. Smith jumps into the water and re-emerges as the hero Odysseus, steering his ship through treacherous waters and encountering unworldly creatures in his quest to reach home.
As Odysseus comes face to face with The Cyclops, Circe and The Sirens in the past, Armitage weaves the present day repercussions alongside. The Prime Minister desperately seeks to distance himself from any political fallout and the Suitors (who in Homer’s Odyssey aim to persuade Odysseus’s wife Penelope into marriage) become journalists, besieging her home and desperate to be the one to whom she sells her story. This modern take on the tale works well thanks to Armitage’s clever and darkly comic script that takes in the refugee crisis in Europe, the power and influence of the media and even manages a topical pig related joke that gets the biggest laugh of the night.
The contemporary updating works so well however that this strand becomes the more enjoyable of the two and it comes slightly at the expense of the mythical narrative. Despite encountering dangerous creatures and life or death battles, the legendary journey of Odysseus lacks a real sense of action and menace and the design of The Cyclops makes this monster more comical than threatening. Despite some imaginative sequences, such as the beautifully performed song of the Sirens, it always feels like the stakes are higher in the present day plot. That is, until the final moments, where Armitage ensures the two strands merge into a dark and satisfying conclusion.
The performers are strong throughout and commit fully to the concept which lends the play believability and authenticity despite its fantastical origins.
Actor Colin Tierney returns to the rôle of Odysseus, having first played the character in The Last Days of Troy. He is suitably charismatic and a believable leader who holds the piece together and bridges the past and the present. Simon Dutton relishes his rôle as the Prime Minister, stealing scenes as he veers between sheer panic, impassioned rants and gleeful egotism. He is countered by the calm, controlled voice of reason offered by his daughter Anthea (the excellent Polly Frame), who is the one who holds the real power and is quietly pulling all the strings.
Signe Beckmann’s clever set design helps to invoke a sense of atmosphere throughout Odysseus’s journey, with part of the stage rising to form a ship and tilting to reflect the motion of the waves.
This fresh take on The Odyssey is an inventive – if slightly uneven – adaptation with strong performances all round and a particularly enjoyable contemporary twist.
Runs until 17 October 2015| Image: Gary Calton