Arts Muse

Theatre Review: The Odyssey

Ben Wilson reviews an emphatic retelling of Homer’s great epic by the TFTI Department.

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Image Credit: Izzy Baxter Photography

You might think that after a spring term spent studying Homer’s epics, the last thing I’d want to do is spend more time watching The Odyssey on stage. While it’s  true that I now curl up into a shivering wreck each time I read the opening lines, it must be said that this production felt like a gust of new wind in Odysseus’ weary sail. Cliché’s aside, the TFTI Department has achieved something truly unique through this powerful and emotive re-telling of a genre-defining story.

Homer’s epics are among both the oldest and most influential texts in the western literary tradition and, as such, have been adapted and re-told in abundance. That said, this striking,  otherworldly performance of The Odyssey felt totally distinct from those before it, adapting a new translation by Emily Wilson into a three-part expression of Odysseus’ tormented journey home following the Trojan War. The three parts, ‘Legacy’, ‘Homecoming’ and ‘Vengeance’, detail the King of Ithaca’s ten year struggle, from the wrath of the gods to the slaughter of his wife’s suitors.

Contrary to my assumption, these three sections were each written, rehearsed and designed as separate shows, with entirely separate casts and executive production teams. Besides obvious changes in cast for recurring characters, this was not at all noticeable nor a detriment to the continuity of the story. Katherine Baird, portraying Athena in Part One, felt that they were able to maintain the freshness of each part despite their interconnectedness. Attributing much of this to Wilson’s translation, she remarked that despite the epic’s prestige, “it’s pointedly not clouded by pretentiousness or the idea that it should be unyielding in how it’s told”. This felt like a notion shared by many of the cast and crew, whose admiration for Wilson’s simplistically poetic style was clear in our conversations, particularly for those members who first came into contact with The Odyssey  through this translation. As a mouthpiece between Homer and the modern audience, Wilson’s poeticism, feminism, humour and keen focus on the physicality of Odysseus’ world all shone through in this production.

In keeping with the epic tradition, Part One opens with the chorus’ invocation of the muse, the stage lit intensely with a deep blue and a huge flowing sail across the background. This ethereal yet minimalistic style of set was consistent throughout, forcing the audience to focus on plot alone. This, I feel, is paramount in telling a story as intricate as The Odyssey, especially given its tradition in oral poetry. Homer’s words, brought to the modern audience through Wilson’s vocabulary and adapted by the cast themselves for the script, were told with such vindication that it simply wasn’t an option to lose focus. At no point was this more relevant than in Joe Spence’s wonderful, anguished performance of both Odysseus and his son Telemachus in Part One. This portrayal of father and son was brilliant, owing to the sheer desperation of both characters evident through Spence’s movement and tone, and the skill with which the dynamic between them was established despite their being so far apart.

Portrayed by Michaella Xavier-Jackson in Part Two, the depth of Odysseus’ character was never more eloquently expressed. From heroism and valour in his encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus, to vulnerability when faced by his mother in the underworld, and stoicism in reassuring Telemachus to control his emotions as they first encounter; this transition of Odysseus’ character is what has always made him such a unique hero.  When asked about the complexity of her role, Michaella said “it’s been difficult to find the balance between Odysseus as this legendary figure known to the gods, Odysseus as a storyteller and Odysseus as a man who just desperately wants to get home.” This three-dimensional quality to his character was drawn out and ever-present in the mind of the audience thanks to clever staging once again in Part Two, where every scene was watched over by opposing faces cut out in the background, marking the multiplicity of Odysseus’ role.

In my opinion, despite several incredible performances by the leads in either part, huge credit is owed to the chorus of each show. Each scene was cleverly bookended with bold physical theatre and atmospheric transitory music, each suited to the mood of the transition, whether eerie and ominous, or bold and chaotic. As put by Jack Corbett, Co-Director of Part Two, “the plot navigates itself through location and the emotional psyche”; without these emotive and intelligently choreographed pieces of physical theatre this would not have been evoked to quite the same effect.

Arguably best, however, of the whole production was the third and final part – ‘Vengeance’. Guiding us through the ordeal with Penelope’s suitors, the cast of this part interacted so well with both one another and the set that I became engrossed in the story as though I was witnessing it for the first time. Long, rippling white cloths adorned the background, mirrored by smaller cloths draped on the stage, manipulated brilliantly by both chorus and leads to create weight and motion.  Odysseus (now played by Mitchell Siddons) was both intense and distressed in this conclusive sequence of events, however it is Penelope who becomes most pivotal in this final section, in keeping with Wilson’s translation. Played by Gabriella Turno, her prayer to Artemis was a standout highlight of the whole production, full of passionate lament and despair. As Gabriella told me, “she’s one of the most powerful people in the whole story” and yet “she still has to prove herself to every single other man in the room” – something she says she can relate to.

No doubt I could praise this production for much longer but, in short, it was completely captivating. Its balance of tension and suspense with motion and fluidity was both unreservedly unique and completely suited to a modern retelling of The Odyssey.

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