Edinburgh Fringe 2010
The House Above again serves as a playground for Belt Up to practice their brand of immersive theatre, with small rooms sectioned off for each of their eight shows. Their ‘Odyssey’ is an ambitious re-working that shows flashes of imaginative insight and dedicated acting, but falls short of presenting a coherent and engaging story and fails to justify the post-apocalyptic context given to Homer’s epic.
With its monsters, armies, voyage to Hades, magic, gods and a ten-year quest to get home, Homer’s epic poem is a brave choice on the part of Belt Up, and it’s one that they try hard to pull off. Their adaptation updates the epic to an unspecified near-future date, in the aftermath of a nuclear war between the US and the UK…which is pretty implausible for starters, and adding in Homer’s various nymphs and monsters doesn’t make matters any easier.
One problem with this new story is that it bleeds into the old one, leading to some murky situations. For example, when a very twenty-first century sailor is stabbed in the eye, are we expected to believe that his father really is the sea god Poseidon? Is the New Yorker who visits Hades claiming to be a poet laureate also the mythical Odysseus? Or even Ulysses? Added to that, the whole thing is presented as a series of episodes, none of which conclude properly. Belt Up truely succeed in presenting the dystopic vision they aim for, and present a highly disjointed narrative.
Perhaps what’s missing is a hero (this dazed, battered and drugged whimp hardly counts). It may be obvious, but the heroic epic relies on its hero. While they adeptly make the point that Odysseus is a dubious role-model (heroic wanderer, tempted mortal and protector of his wife or a plunderer, adulterer and mass murderer, depending on how you spin it), Belt Up never show any of Odysseus the wanderer. He doesn’t ever escape the people he meets – but gets hauled between encounters without any idea of what’s going on. His captors do all the story-telling, drugging him when they’ve finished an episode – Odysseus never gets to kill the people he’s accused of killing, nor really do anything. We never see his cunning or his deviousness – crucial to Odysseus as a character.
That said, this is a brave stab at filtering Homer’s epic through a new lens, and some episodes make a lot of sense. An updated version of the cannibals encountered by Odysseus logically becomes a freak medical centre, experimenting on people in order to feed others. Belt Up manage to drag the myth into the mid-twenty-first century, even if they can’t quite convert some of the more religious elements (like Poseidon and his sailor son).
Belt Up made their name with immersive theatre and this is no exception, with its audience herded into a small space then seated on the floor surrounded by props and tables and the three actors. But this is also described by Belt Up as an interactive performance, and in many ways it is. Odysseus is subdued – frequently, at the end of an episode – with a gas mask, and between scenes that is in the care of an audience member. When the moment comes, that audience member always has the choice to not hand it over, to let Odysseus escape – but do they ever make that decision? More excitingly, each audience member is given a ball from a ballpit, and we’re later instructed to throw these at our hero. Far from waiting for he who is without sin, the audience relish this opportunity to unleash whatever emotion the other two performers have passed on through their force of acting. At other points, there are opprtunites to help bulk up the cast with impressions of six-headed monster Scylla and mutilated victims of the medical research centre.
With no regard for coherent narrative, this ambitious refashioning of myth doesn’t meet the high standards set by Belt Up in previous productions, despite its audience involvement and committed acting.