Mike Kenny’s new version of The Odyssey condenses 20 years of travel and adventure into two hours of stage time. The first act, which deals with Odysseus’s journey, certainly benefits from a fast pace, giving us the key episodes of the epic voyage in brief scenes. A chorus of gods is our narrators while the man himself lies spark out centre stage. As the action gets under way, Odysseus becomes his own storyteller, narrating a story within a story – but don’t worry: it’s all very accessible and easy to follow.
It’s action-packed and fast-moving with some stirring acapella singing from soloists and the entire company. Composer and sound designer Ivan Stott should be commended for his excellent contributions. He also appears as a range of characters, including Eumaeus the swineherd.
Director Sarah Brigham hardly lets the cast keep still for a second; the action is fluid and the staging is rich with invention and ideas, making the most of the present-day army aesthetic. But for me, the tone is slightly off. Some of the narration and heightened dialogue is a little too earnest and po-faced. The piece could do with lightening up – that is not to say it is humourless because it has its funny moments; I just think the bias is the wrong way round. They need to have more fun with it so that moments of anguish and suffering are all the more striking by contrast.
Christopher Price is a darkly funny Cyclops, stalking around on stilts, half-man, half-Dalek. Wole Sawyerr is a weary Odysseus, conveying most of the hero’s exhaustion through body language, summoning up yet another idea to save their skins and finding the energy to command his crew. He seems to come alive in the second act when the plot slows down to focus on events upon his much-delayed return to his home on Ithaca. Here is human drama – as opposed to the derring-do with gods and monsters in the first act – and the cast is able to invest more emotion in the playing of these scenes.
Emma Beattie is a hard-nosed Penelope, standing her ground against an infestation of suitors and guarding her emotions until she is finally sure her long-lost husband has returned. Similarly effective is Rich Dolphin as Odysseus’s troubled teenage son Telemachus, convincing us with his entire demeanour that he is younger than he really is, without descending into caricature. Adam Horvath gets the arrogance and cruelty of would-be husband Antinous just right, and I also enjoyed Ella Vale’s haughty Circe as well as Anna Westlake’s loyal servant Eurekleia.
The fights (directed by Ian Stapleton) and other acts of violence are handled extremely well – I just wish the production didn’t take itself quite so seriously in the first half. There is more than enough energy and creativity at work here to allow for a lighter touch that would sharpen the contrast with the heavier moments.
Technically and theatrically impressive, this Odyssey is enjoyable but doesn’t really hit home until its hero does.