The Odyssey

Thu 9th – Sat 11th February 2012

reviews

Elizabeth Briggs

at 08:24 on 10th Feb 2012

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The programme for Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of the Odyssey does explicitly state the close relationship that this play has with Homer’s text. Therefore it is requisite that the production team must familiarize themselves with Homer’s Odyssey thoroughly before the rehearsal process begins, not only to respect the original but also to benefit their own performance. As a staunch traditionalist, I did wince slightly at repeated mispronunciations. These really cannot be excused, especially considering the close proximity of the Assembly Rooms to the Classics and Ancient History department. Nitpicking aside, what this production lacked in authenticity was made up for by the energy that the team brought to the story, which helped to realise Director John Muething’s idea to bring an oral tradition (which the inclusion of musical interludes staggered throughout the play acknowledged) to the stage, and they did so in a way that kept all the humour that is such a key feature of the Odyssey. It was this that carried the play to meet its end which is fundamentally no different today than it was 2,000 years ago: to entertain the audience.

The characterisation of Odysseus was interpreted in a way which was detrimental to the performance: we saw none of the “cunning Odysseus” of the Odyssey, who relishes using the turns of his mind to negotiate his way out of hopeless circumstances. I struggled to believe that this Odysseus had the arrogance and pride to lead the Hellenes against Troy, or to make a blood bath in his own dining room. However, Odysseus himself would have been proud of the dexterous handling of bamboo canes (or were they oars? A trident? Or a spit?) and staggered white drapes which hung from the top to the bottom of the stage. They were a reminder throughout the course of the play of Odysseus’ travels, for as soon as they had been used in a way which suggested a ship’s sails, their presence reiterated the distance Odysseus still had left to cover during his nostos. I highly commend the imagination of the team, which turned such simple and accessible props to so many uses.

After a relatively slow start, the actors came into their own and claimed the story for their own in the scene between Hermes (Will Clarke) and Calypso (Carrie Gaunt.) It brought out the characteristics of the gods and their politics which the first scenes nervously forgot about: the pair were bitchy and petty, funny and larger than life. It was immensely enjoyable and lead into one of the most memorable moments of Odysseus’ heroism - his confrontation with the one-eyed Polyphemus. I had my reservations about this scene before it began, curious as to how the horror, tragedy, pastoral elements and comedy could be realised without special effects. However the effect was spectacular. The team were well aware of their staging limitations and worked these fantastically to their advantage. Using a projector to cast the giant shadow of the Cyclops upon the sailing sheets, the inhospitable islander contrasted tremendously with his team of cartoonesque sheep. Another excellent decision lay in the performance of blind bard Demodocus at Alcinous’ palace, who attempted the piano downstage. After he launched into some uncomfortable chords, Alcinous quickly called for quiet, as the song was “not pleasing everyone,” which injected a new comic meaning into the script and saved the moment from becoming a flop by making it bathetic instead. The first half flew by in a Charybdian whirl of fun and it was through no fault of the team that, in comparison, the second half seemed to drag on.

Throughout the first half of the play the movement between scenes was fluid, with props and small costume tokens worn over a simple uniform of a white shirt and blue jeans. These were effective (particularly some secretly applied pig snorters) and waved goodbye to potential obstacles, such as the massacre of the suitors. This was symbolised by Odysseus unravelling the suitors red ribbon ties to illustrate the bloodshed in the palace-a technique exercised in the Japanese genre of Kabuki to represent onstage physical violence. In a play whose main theme is disguise, the decision to dress the beggar Odysseus in a tweed blazer was a wonderful comment on archetypal Durham standards of dress!

Although the company were strong, some members were stronger than others. Rebecca Wallbank must be applauded for her bubbly portrayal of Nausicaa and powerful rendering of Penelope. It was instrumental to the plot that the same actress should play both roles, and the upbeat choreography of the washing scene made a refreshing asymmetrical mirroring of Penelope’s composed mourning. The serious scenes varied in success, but the simple puppet of Argos the hound was tasteful and touching. The varied accents gave us passage on the journey overseas with Odysseus, which appeals as much to a modern audience, who forget momentarily that they are still firmly seated, as it would have done to an ancient one.

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Julie Fisher

at 09:42 on 10th Feb 2012

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Although the title of the play suggests a rather tedious performance, this is thankfully not the case, and The Odyssey keeps you entertained until the very end thanks to the gripping plot, incredible acting, and impressive direction from John Muething. There is even, despite the play being based on a classic, a fair amount of humour.

A large amount of the play is narrated, although the other actors often mime the events being described while the narrator speaks in order to give a more visual representation. Although each of the actors took their turn in narrating, this role often fell to Sophia Harrop, who showed particular talent for switching from character to narrator (albeit usually signalling this change by the raising or lowering of a cloak). The cast numbering only eight, the play could easily have become confusing (especially given the numerous similar-sounding Greek names), but this was thankfully not the case, as it was always clear who each actor was supposed to be, and this was enhanced due to the use of props. Certain actors also took on certain kinds of role, such of Carrie Gaunt, who provided comic relief in every role which she enacted (the goddess Circe and Calypso to name but two) through her excellent use of gesture.

Nathan Elcox was also of particular note, playing Zeus whenever his presence was necessary, as well as numerous less central roles. And there certainly were many such roles to be played, the majority of the small cast having acted as sheep, sailors, and Chigago-esque Sirens (in the case of the women) before the night was out. Unfortunately, during the second half of the performance in particular, there were several slip-ups and fluffed lines, particularly from Daniel Pitts, but the actors were unfailingly professional, refusing to let this fluster them, and on the whole this did not affect the performance much.

The props were kept at the back of the stage for the duration of the show and retrieved by the actors when necessary, but a certain amount of imagination was requisite from the audience (such as with Athena's sandals and the sharpening of one of the numerous bamboo canes into a spear). However, this was not generally a problem, and the props, as well as the white drapes hanging from the ceiling and the occasional burst of background music, added to the atmosphere of the production. The lighting, by technical director David Newman, was also well-timed and effective, particularly in what most of the audience mistook for the last scene when it was in fact the penultimate one.

All in all, The Odyssey provided a thoroughly enjoyable evening's entertainment. It was by no means flawless, but on the whole it was entertaining, witty, and an excellent retelling of Homer's epic.

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