There is no denying that for many viewers, outgoing Old Vic director David Farr, has hit a ‘homer’ in his exuberant reworking of The Odyssey. “It’s wonderful – so imaginative”, one excited audience member gushed at the interval. Others have, apparently, already rebooked.
This adaptation brings a dramatic transformation to this wonderful 18th century venue which is converted into a theatre in the round, apparently a long-cherished ambition of Farr’s. And yet, and yet – loathe as I am to be a Banquo at this banquet - for all the colour, inventiveness and excellence of the cast and the laudable ambition of bringing a classic to the attention of a new audience – it follows the success of last year’s Paradise Lost – this Odyssey, for me, goes awry.
It opens with Odysseus shipwrecked on Albion’s shores, present day, one presumes. Our hero, recast as an asylum seeker, albeit that he protests he only wants to leave, receives rough justice at the hands of 'interrogators', Roger (the excellent Colin Mace) and Harold, who physically abuse him and ignore his rights. One early highlight is the transformation of what sounds like an official immigration manual into a song and dance number by Roger and Harold.
Music, performed by the ensemble led by composer Stu Barker, permeates the production which grows in assurance and depth in the second half. But, as with Kneehigh’s The Bacchae which preceded this production here, it wants to be both larky and tragic and it’s a tall order to pull off. It also begs some pretty big questions. How did Odysseus, not to mention a cell-full of Trojans, get washed up in the English Channel? Why would Roger believe, let alone ‘stick his neck out’ and arrange a flight home for this stranger, with his tales of rapacious goddesses with the power to turn men into swine and one-eyed cave monsters with a taste for human flesh?
Still, while the satire may be heavy-handed, this voyage affords pleasures enough if one is prepared to suspend disbelief. The six-strong cast, led by Robert Bowman as Odysseus, doubling and trebling up roles, are excellent, as is the design by Angela Davies. The Odyssey, which sails next into West Yorkshire Playhouse, is certainly worth the trouble of a trip.
- Pete Wood (reviewed at Bristol Old Vic)