Friday, 30 October 2015

The Odyssey

The myth is superimposed onto a contemporary British political scandal. The result is effective if a little clunky

Written by Georgina Brown
Georgina-Brown-colour-176Earlier this year, Simon Armitage was made Oxford Professor of Poetry, which sounds scarily erudite. Not that there’s anything particularly frightening, or specially poetic, about his stage version of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey – Missing Presumed Dead. Indeed, these omissions and a slightly choppy structure are the only flaws in Nick Bagnall’s simple and effective show.

Armitage brings the piece bang up to the present. The Odysseus figure is a minister in the current government, a bearded, beery ‘man-of-thepeople’- style Northerner called Smith (Colin Tierney spookily resembling a younger Jeremy Corbyn, which is nicely disorientating because he is obviously a Tory). The prime minister (played by a sexy Simon Dutton) is an effing and blinding migrant-hater who considers Europe a cesspool. Facing an imminent general election, he packs Smith off to be seen to support the Brits in a football match against Turkey.

All’s well until Smith gets caught up in a brawl between xenophobic British fans and timid Turks and photographs of him apparently sticking a broken bottle in the neck of a young Muslim woman are tweeted. Ambushed by the press, Smith plunges into the sea and attempts to return home. He has become a modern-day Odysseus.

Meanwhile, his teenage son Magnus reads Homer’s Odyssey, a birthday present from the PM’s daughter. Her name is Anthea, which, those of you who know your Homer, will recognise as an anagram for Athena, a goddess who gets stuff done round these parts. As Magnus reads the book, his dad merges with Homer’s hero in his imagination.

Unravelling on a striking design of cut-out shapes, dominated by a huge orb, the PM’s office is deftly transformed into Odysseus’s ship-shaped tilting platform, manned by a rowdy crew of little use as Odysseus attempts to see off his enemies. Not that the dangling puppet Cyclops is remotely menacing. Much better is the saucy sorceress, Circe, who turns them into a herd of squealing swine.

In the most affecting scene, Odysseus conjures up the spirit of his mother who has died of grief for her missing son. In another nice touch, Susie Trayling’s Penelope, Odysseus’s plucky, patient wife, spins not a shroud (as in the original) but a warts ’n’ all, kiss ’n’ tell yarn about her marriage to satisfy the tabloid hacks outside her house.

If it can pick up a brisker wind, it’s a voyage of discovery well worth making.

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