Writer: Chris Bush
Director: Emily Lim
Music: Jim Fortune
Public Acts’ The Odyssey is a five-episode, community-driven theatrical adaptation of Odysseus’ epic journey. The first four productions were created by and performed earlier in the year at venues in Stoke-on-Trent, Doncaster, Trowbridge, and Sunderland. The final instalment, a razzle-dazzle musical version of the Greek hero’s journey to and through the underworld, brings together performers from each of the previous productions as well as a cohort of London-based community artists. The result, The Underworld, is a comforting and inclusive concoction of sonorous tunes, wit, and charm, wrapped up in a glittering package of National Theatre production values.
Called to war by Hermes, here described as the “god of post and napping”, Odysseus (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) sets sail for Troy. After a decade of war and an adventurous journey back, she finds herself held captive on the island of Ogygia. Writer Chris Bush and director Emily Lim reimagine Odysseus’ island jail as a kind of Disney-style, all-inclusive Caribbean holiday resort, overseen by hotel manager Calypso, here more of a pantomime dame than seductive nymph.
The island’s make-your-own margarita bar, beach umbrellas, and acapella band of singing sailors (a glorious cameo from the South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus), soon entice Odysseus to forget she wants to leave. Besides, the shipping forecast, issued by the Oracle of Delphi no less, is all rain, rain, and more rain.
Back on Ithaca, Odysseus’ son Telemachus (Tarinn Callender) aided by his protector Athena (Emma Prendergast in shimmering silver and with a knack for sign language) plans a rescue. High above on Mount Olympus, the pantheon of the gods comes together for a surprise party for Zeus’ birthday and chooses to set Odysseus one final trial. She must voyage to the land of the dead, there to confront and overcome the deity of the underworld, Hades (Zubin Varla).
Set designer Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey’s underworld is a kind of hellish three-dimensional corporate office, with form-filling workers, and strings of correspondence and bills cascading down from the Olivier’s roof. It is a reminder that, as Hades points out, there are “two constants in the universe, death and paperwork”.
Should she triumph, Odysseus will finally be allowed to return home to Ithaca, there to be reunited with her long-lost son. But god of the sea Poseidon (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) wants Odysseus dead (“every day she lives is an insult to the gods” she fulminates), so before our hero even gets to the underworld she must pass through a perilous sea and the seductive song of the sirens.
Greenaway-Bailey places the orchestra and chorus atop a raised semi-circular gallery at the rear of the Olivier stage. It is a clever design choice that maximises the available space for a cast that includes 160 performers. Every so often the action overflows onto the theatre aisles and audience interaction means you may literally find yourself dancing in your seat.
The performances are uniformly good. Many of the community performers get a line but “the postman who always delivers” Hermes, the drunken Geordie Dionysus, and the angry sunglass-wearing Cyclops standout. Hamilton-Barritt, the star turn in the National’s recent Hex (and the only decent thing in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella) channels dastardly evil-sister mode as Poseidon. Zubin Varla is fantastic as the cynical, world-weary Hades, whose long black hair flows over his fetching white dress and thigh boots like an oily river. He can sing too; his rock and roll style plea to Odysseus to cease his epic voyage, Stay With Us, is one of the musical highlights of the show.
Duncan-Brewster has a wonderful vocal range, particularly in the show’s other soaring showstopper number, the gospel-themed Break The Curse, delivered with a 20-strong choral backing. Composer Jim Fortune’s other tunes range from jazz to sea shanty, to Caribbean salsa.
Fly Davis’ costumes are gorgeous and may well have blown this year’s budget. Leather jerkins and rusty orange and copper browns for the Ithacans; bright tropical oranges, pinks, and purples for the Hotel Calypso; sparkling satin, and sequins for the pantheon of the gods. The sirens are all in black rain capes, and the denizens of the underworld are clad in creams, greys, and whites.
Movement director Dan Canham delivers first-class choreography, particularly in the Scottish country dancing that celebrates the surprise party the gods throw for Zeus.
Runs until 28 August 2023