Thursday, 5 November 2015

Theatre review: The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead

To complete the Homeric theme of the Swanamaker's pre-season we have writer Simon Armitage and director Nick Bagnall, who gave us a play based on the Iliad in 2014, now returning to tackle the Odyssey. I wasn't sure what to expect as I found their take on The Last Days of Troy a somewhat redundant addition to the many other versions of the story, but for The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead Armitage has found a new angle and explored it well. In modern-day Britain, a few weeks before a general election, Smith (Colin Tierney,) a minister popular with the people but not necessarily so with his own party, wants to go home to Cumbria for his son's 18th birthday. But the Prime Minister (Simon Dutton) co-opts him to show his face at a World Cup qualifier in Istanbul. England win the match but in the aftermath Smith and his friends get caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time - attempting to break up a violent brawl, a photo taken from the wrong angle makes it look like the minister dealt a killer blow, and it goes viral.

It soon becomes an international incident, made worse by the fact that Smith, a former Navy man, has resorted to instinct and taken to the sea. To the world at large, he seems to have guiltily fled, and vanished.

It's at this point that Homer's version of the story kicks in again: Smith becomes Odysseus, while his translator (Sule Rimi,) an old friend (Roger Evans) and one of the football fans (Chris Reilly) turn into his crew. They encounter lotus fields, a Cyclops, Circe (Danusia Samal) and sirens on the way back to Ithaca. But Armitage's conceit is not to allow the modern equivalent to be pure framing device, and we jump back and forth between Odysseus navigating the ancient Mediterranean, and his wife Penelope (Susie Trayling) at home in modern-day England, awaiting his return.

This allows some nice parallels between the two versions of the story - from major themes, like Penelope's suitors becoming paparazzi fighting for a picture and bidding for the exclusive story, to little references like their son Magnus (Lee Armstrong) having an interest in archery1. One of the best elements of the show is how it gets the balance just right between the original story and the modern version; the story from Odysseus' POV is told pretty much straight, but rumours of possible sightings in the scenes back home give suggestions of what that universe's version of the journey might be like. Meanwhile Polly Frame doubles as Athena as well as the Zeus-like PM's daughter, who serves a similar function and, it's hinted, might actually be the goddess herself.

It's also surprisingly funny - perhaps unintentionally in the case of the Cyclops design, but everywhere else with some good gags, especially in the scenes with the panicked politicians. The show is a co-production with the Liverpool Everyman, where it premiered2, and where the early jokes about Westminster politicians having a sort of generic contempt for the North must have gone down even better than they do here. A much-done and familiar story gets a fresh look that succeeds both in telling the original and bringing something new to the table, in an overall very successful evening.

The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead by Simon Armitage is booking in repertory until the 14th of November at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

1He also corrects his mother when she wrongly says he used alliteration when it was actually sibilance. It's got nothing to do with Homer but it's satisfying 'cause it had been bugging me.

2Production photos are from that staging, which is why the stage looks too large to be the Swanamaker. It's essentially done on a bare stage here, although some of Signe Beckmann's costume designs add a distinctive look - a red-and-black dress Penelope wears in the second act is particularly memorable, a ripped design that made me think of exposed flesh and ribs for some gruesome reason.

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