Fringe Online 2021
Jermyn Street’s Tom Littler directs 16 actors in the 24 books of The Odyssey.
Designed by Louie Whitemore. Lighting by Johanna Town, Lighting Associate Tom Lightbody, with Matt Eaton’s Sound.
Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced.
Jermyn Street’s an Odyssey in itself: like all stories we end where we began. Remember when Artistic Director Tom Littler seized on lockdown first with two Zoom productions and Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets? In October came a stupefying undertaking: 72 actors over ten hours and 24 Books of The Odyssey. In November 15 Heroines based on Ovid.
Then from May 43 productions of JST’s Footprints Festival. A day after that ends, the 44th: Homer’s Odyssey returns. This smallest of West End producing theatres confirms it’s the UK’s largest.
This time it’s slimline. Just sixteen actors, seven returning from 2020 – Janet Suzman, Michael Pennington, Sam Crerar, David Sturzaker, Hannah Morrish, Miranda Raison, Rachel Pickup. And there’s new stars (scroll down now if you like).
Over fourteen hours, around ten of actual performances, we’re empanelled into six sections of four books each, with titles Wilson uses for one of those books. Ten actors this time are assigned characters. And there’s six narrators, appearing just once – it’s easily enough – to preside over each section. Starting at 9.30 it finishes 23.30. You really do need those breaks.
Using Emily Wilson’s acclaimed 2018 translation again helps: a fleet limber iambic pentameter replaces the original dactylic tread and chant. There’s a ring of bronze, a singing level, a rasp of tackle, a crisp visitation of gods. You can see it on the page – monosyllables flying, spaced paras to allow 400 pages of text air. If you follow it during performance its lightness and spring is infectious, leaving you to marvel at actors and text.
There’s a swing and sting to it, magisterial where it needs to be, though lean, sinewed with lyric eddies of repose. Very like the story it conveys with no whiff of archaism, no jolt of contemporaneity that so quickly jades. Yes you get U.S. vocabulary like ‘chow’ but it’s homeopathic.
If you’ve seen either of Natalie Haynes’ talks at JST you’ll have been exposed to The Iliad and the two missing epics. Homer’s 8th Century BCE epic treats of how the wily Odysseus always wily, always cunning, (Wilson takes on memnonics in her gleaming 100 page intro) takes another ten years to get home after ten years’ Siege of Troy; it’s Homer’s second great epic, after the Iliad which relates the ninth year, mainly Achilles mega-sulk.
Haynes loped through all 24 books of that in 40 minutes in Troy Story and had to run off stage overrunning. No such problem here, but from the first sprightly running that appears in morning (not quite rosy-fingered) you’ll wish you trained like Haynes.
The Odyssey’s riven with storytelling inside the story itself. There’s a double narrative, points of retelling – Odysseus at the court of Alkinoös in Phalákia is just one storyteller of himself.
Basically we get Athena telling Telemechus, Odysseus’s son to go look for him, that’s the first four books. Then from Book Five, yes that late we get Odysseus himself, who fetches up retelling his story over the next six books, and in 12 he’s honoured. From 13, we’re back in Ithaca already when Athena wants to disguise him as an ancient beggar, and from then on it’s a ratcheting tension as he strategises, chooses allies, conceals himself and via an archery competition set up by Penelope who might or might not realise (21) launches revenge on the suitors (22). The last two books (23, 24) concern recognition (that olive-tree bed) then a mop-up of discontents, a diminuendo ending.
This production’s brilliance re-invokes the text as oracular, an intercut staging as actors sit round and one or more rise and confront each other, sometimes with terrific power.
Matt Eaton creates soundscapes of creaking holds, twittering birdscapes, and all the Mediterranean sounds between each book, and designed by Louie Whitemore in a seated semi-circle with space to act the lighting by Johanna Town (Lighting Associate Tom Lightbody) thrums through colours sympathetic to the Eaton sound envelopes.
So here’s the cast, and after this it’s a brief sprint though each of the six sections. Summarising actions would be prohibitive:
James Purfoy Odysseus
Susannah Harker Penelope
Chirag Benedict Lobo Telemechus
Clare Perkins, Athena
Michael Pennington Zeus, Alcinous, Laertes
David Sturzaker Antinous, Agamemnon
Robert Mountford Eurymachus, Polyphemus
Marion Bailey Eurycleia
Sam Crerar Hermes, Nausicaa
Jim Findlay Poseidon, Eumaeus
Dona Croll, Narrator (The Boy and the Goddess Books 1-4)
Janet Suzman Narrator (The Songs of a Poet Books 5-8)
Lisa Dwon Narrator (The Wind and the Witch Books 9-12)
Miranda Raison Narrator (Father and Son Books 13-16)
Hannah Morrish Narrator (The Queen and the Beggar Books 17-20)
Rachel Pickup Narrator (The Olive Tree Bed Books 21-24)
The Boy and the Goddess Books 1-4
Dona Croll, Narrator here is a strong opening narrator, swift, decisive, thewing her monosyllables and introducing Clare Perkins’ characterful adamantine Athena. Michael Pennington makes his first appearance as a querulous Zeus, fresh from the previous days’ Sweet William, the last JST Footprints Festival. Perkins cajoles Chirag Benedict Lobo’s ardent and tremulous Telemechus – one who rushes at fears and fences. Perkins’ scheming Athena exhorts Odysseus’ now just-grown son to search out his father: uphill till she pushes him off.
Sam Crerar both as fleet Hermes, and persuasive Nausicaa has a sure-stepped velocity that’s really winning and throughout the day flickers in and out with the sureness of Hermes’ sandals.
Marion Bailey’s Eurycleia introduces a warm dimension, humane and acutely aware of the suffering around her. Bailey introduces that certain solicitude for others and wariness when withdrawing from that comfort, always watchful.
Finally we see very little yet of Susannah Harker’s Penelope but even here Harker produces a sliver of grief and plangency that tells you every scene she’s in is going to melt you. She’s transfixing.
The Songs of a Poet Books 5-8
Janet Suzman takes Narrator and with a sibylline sense of time is both fluid and magisterial. Pennington’s Zeus is back and the two weave authority as James Purfoy first appears as Odysseus, in a sotto voce whisper, a man pummelled at full stretch. Purfoy doesn’t rise above a whisper for Book 5, interacting with Book 6’s Alcinous (Pennington again, bringing succour as he mini-role of Echeneus, as well as Alcinous), Crerar’s fleet Nausicaa who’s rather fallen for him and finally Purfoy, shrouded and sitting stands, and uses a seductive voice. Book 7 brings Suzman and Perkins’ Athena to confront Purfoy, and there’s a vigour as if night slips away from the title actor.
Book 8 finds Jim Findlay in a froth – literally, he’s Poseidon, and finds reasons to smite Odysseus. It’s at this point that having made landfall Odysseus encounters Crerar’s warmly enchanting Nausicaa one of the Odyssey’s most sympathetic characters. She it is who guides the hero in to her father’s palace to tell his tale, revealing identity with habitual caution.
The Wind and the Witch Books 9-12
Lisa Dwon takes over not just as Narrator but primarily as Calypso, sitting outboard as the narrators do in the staged horseshoe, stage-right. Dwon draws focus, literally enchants and draws in with her speech, as opposed to pronouncing. It’s her job description.
Backstory: Already Odysseus had spent one of his ten homecoming years with enchanter Circe (Crerar) but Hermes had said give in to that goddess to ensure safe conduct. It hadn’t been un-enjoyable. Now Perkins’ amused Athena discovers Odysseus enchanted with seven more by Dwon’s not unreasonable Calypso as toy-boy willing to confer immortality on him too; but every day he’s wept. Athena gets him out of jail free with a Zeus-order. OK Calypso says, preparing him for the voyage.
Robert Mountford (who wrote and starred early in the JST Festival) in his first role in Book 10 as the man-munching Cyclops Polyphemus, which doesn’t end well, but don’t forget his prophetic curse and that Findlay’s Poseidon’s his father.
In Book 11 we go deep, as Calypso instructs Odysseus he must visit the underworld and consult prophet Tiresias. It’s a superb pantheon of actors threading in and out of Hades and neatly stage-managed as they smell blood. Odysseus has spread blood for but thrusting back other ghosts for Tiresias to come forward first.
Findlay comes into his own as Tiresias. Bailey appears as his mother – she and Purfoy are deeply affecting here. Pennington appears as Alcinous and Eceneous, quavering round the blood, and
David Sturzaker makes another vigorous entrance as Agamemnon, unjustly killed ‘like an ox over the table’. Mountford reappears as the youngest crew member to die, drunk at Calypso’s palace when given the reveille, and Odysseus has to return later to bury him.
Findlay again as Achilles stirs with his laments. Sturzaker’s Agamemnon assures him now he’s conscious that he had a far better death.
In Book 12 Dwon makes her bow as Calypso then backwards where Odysseus tells this as Circe too; Crerar’s still rapt as princess Nausicaa, at the court, but Hermes too and other small parts.
In Book 12 too Sturzaker’s a querulous crewman alongside Mountford after his blinder as Polyphemus. They’re energetic and fill the stage with testosterone and rebellion. A thrilling climax to the first half before (spoiler!) they sink beneath the waves.
Father and Son Books 13-16
Miranda Raison’s the steady narrator, driving the action on with gentle interrogative vigilance. Pennington’s bow as Alcinous is seraphic (he’s back later but as Laertes). This is the bit where Odysseus is gently put ashore by his hosts (who suffer for it through Poseidon’s revenge) and Athena wrinkles him up in disguise.
Perkins and Purfoy enjoy lively exchanges here and later Perkins chivvying Benedict Lobo’s Telemechus. He’s the first Odysseus reveals himself to and here finally and especially in Book 14 comes more into his own – there’s an appealing eagerness and almost trip-over velocity to his runs that wrench young against older.
As loyal Eumaeus in Book 15 Findlay really comes into his own too and we see far ore of him, holding his own against heroes. Odysseus still won’t reveal himself to Eumaeus yet; there’s sly interplay with trust stories, false tales Eumaeus sees through but not yet quite to who his shipwrecked beggar is.
We get a few switches to Ithaca’s Penelope-besieged state as Mountford takes on Eurymachus, most arrogant of her suitors.
This mounts in Book 16 as Sturzaker’s smoother Antinous counterpoints Mountford’s Brummy bully Eurymachus and as earlier we get a testosterone-fuelled parley of men sure of themselves before beggars.
Antinous might be more sympathetic but does enough to incite wrath. Findlay’s Eumaeus can’t abide them, but Harker’s Penelope is the great revelation. Far more active now she ascends the invention of grief. The most explosive deliveries henceforward through to Book 22 provide some of the most emotionally engaged action of the whole day’s arc. Raison closes the whole on a trembling webbed sense of the possible. The lighting and sound as ever here are magical moving from woody brown to a literal lime light for the next section.
The Queen and the Beggar Books 17-20
Hannah Morrish (like Mountford another writer/actor from early in the JST Footprints Festival, with her outstanding Hole) is swift. With her Shakespearean instinct for iambic, she’s a perfect unfolder of plots and portrayer of grief. Morrish shadows her narrative with what Harker as Penelope endures.
Morrish repeats how Penelope is girt round in her own Ithaca by ravenous suitors. Then it’s Harker’s riveting, dealing with Mountford and Sturzaker’s insolence (he has two negative roles, insolent goatherd Melanthius too), her dealing first with the doubts then the commanding preppiness of her own son Benedict Lobo’s Telemechus ordering to her room, show a register of feeling that then darkens to respond to Bailey’s Nurse and finally, as we’ll see Purfoy.
Crerar’s Athena again cunning and directive with Telemechus and Benedict Lobo conveys the son’s occasional blurt bluster and bullying towards Penelope; the last might be correct and establish him as future king, but we recoil.
In Book 18 Crerar’s also the disloyal pretty servant girl Melantho whom Penelope had brought up, who’s now rude to Penelope, screwing Mountford’s Brummy Eurymachus. Mountford takes on Amphinomus a kindly suitor who almost heeds the warning to leave till Athena decides he must die too.
Mountford erupts as another Brummy bully too, Irus a beggar-on-beggar fight which the disguised king easily triumphs in.
Book 19 finds beggar Purfoy unrecognized by his wife but still testing her, and she wary of him but courteous, as Bailey – he one who suddenly recognises her old master from the boar scar but is enjoined to an oath.
Book 20 has Pennington’s Philoetius Odysseus’ old servant proves himself worthy and is entrusted with fighting alongside. So finally is Findlay’s Eumaeus. Mountford’s in bullish mode again as Eurymachus. What’s thrilling here is Purfoy, Harker and Perkins’ darting Athena interacting (usually as giver of sleep), with Bailey slipping in to warm a human dimension instead.
Interplay between the three actors is quietly electric and Morrish enfolds the whole of this and Book 20. There’s a raptness at this, a noirish blue lighting, an expectation of dawn’s eruption.
The Olive Tree Bed Books 21-24
Rachel Pickup is the final narrator; she brings a dread hush, even lowering the temperature of Morrish’s and before that Raison’s calm. The liminal erupts in heat.
Book 21 the archery contest set up by Penelope is her final impossible hurdle. Findlay also doubles as Leodes the suitor’s prophet, later haggling for his life. Harker briefly disappears to bed, ordered by her surely brattish son and knocked out by Perkins’ Athena. Pickup relates the palette with quiet velocity. Text is ever fleet, urgency’s answered in the actors.
Book 22 in Sturzaker’s and Mountford’s explosive death-throes mix with Findlay’s as Purfoy, Findlay (as loyal Eumaeus) Benedict Lobo prove triumphant.
Book 22 contains the most terrible part in all Homer: the hanging of the twelve slave-girls who slept with suitors. As if they’re chattels stained, with no agency, being as Wilson states, just girls.
There’s elements in the homecoming we thrill to, but the double massacre underscores just how far our sensibility is from such telling, implacably delivered by Purfoy’s granitic Odysseus and his son Benedict Lobo who delivers no swift death as his father commands but a hanging for insults; Bailey memorably dividing those girls loyal and disloyal, the latter forced to wash away the blood, remove bodies then be hanged. ‘Their feet twitched, but not for long.’ The terror and pity of this is unbearable and for a while you hate Odysseus – and Telemechus.
At such times Shakespeare’s uniquely confiding cynic from his first ‘problem play’ Troilus and Cressida seems more humane, even preferable. Wilson lets us have the ancient neat.
Pickup opening Book 23 is superb: animated – every word weighed, every gesture subtly brought out. Harker and Bailey interact one final time, Harker incredulous and not a little angry till calmed by Bailey. Purfoy and Harker here gently erupt in final recognition.
Then the querulous, thawing voicing of Harker’s taking Penelope’s traumas travails and joyous awakening amidst a re-telling of what occurs whilst she slept. And after doubts raptures of 20 years’ pent-up desires.
Book 24 skews us to what promises as another eternal round of fighting. There’s a shout back for Mountford and Sturzaker as discontents with the Ithaca massacre and a final rebellion. It’s action to the end.
Benedict Lobo’s Telemechus, a youth shrouded in his father’s fame, stands foursquare beside father and grandfather, trying not to be awed. He’s how you think Telemechus should sound though here still darting, uncertain. Pennington’s newly-delighted and Athene-strengthened Laertes is a beautifully antiphonal response to both Purfoy and Perkins.
Purfoy’s dark-threaded Odysseus rises in flinty power. Perkins’ Athena calls them all to cease, Pickup then Perkins rounding us back to Croll’s invocations ten hours ago. Perkins radiates benediction, a sibyl calling on the wanderer to desist and cease.
Silence then applause fade us out. But not before a word from director Tom Littler at 23.30 about the supreme stage management today.
The contrast with the previous production on 72 individual zooms is visually obvious, though here onstage the same fireside telling asserts itself. Lighting and sound with an audience too to applaud each section lent atmosphere, there were very few technical issues throughout, a few mics off, which can be ironed in a recording. Throughout there’s a memorable crispness to staging, as Littler attests.
Of the actors, narrators are all memorable from Croll’s driving dispatch, Suzman’s multi-voiced world, seductive Dwon who takes Calypso too, Raison’s clean authority, Morrish’s warm shadowing and Pickup’s steady sense of how far this is from us, how far we’ve come.
Pennington adds a thew and vocal thread as does Suzman to a vocal grain superbly contrasted to other actors. Findlay and Bailey affect with emotional weight, Mountford and Sturzaker with impudent bounce, bringing kick-starts to their scenes.
Crerar’s incisiveness in each role energizes the verse too – it’s so right she’s Hermes. Perkins revels in her sphinx-like Athena eruptions into narratives but calls halts with satisfying chill. Benedict Lobo is fresh, nervous, a believable Telemechus.
Purfoy moves from a whispering dawn of self-doubt through conflicting emotions of tricksiness – he’s strong on swerving identities and equally gnarling an endurance. Purfoy almost hoods his eyes with Odysseus’ pain. He often sits to hold his voice back. Then rising roars vengeance, sounds deeps of reunion.
Harker though appearing in fewer scenes impresses at least equally with a depth of heartbreak held back, checked with an intelligence rivalling her husband though in a tiny compass of rooms. Penelope’s emotion, her suffering and final release, is a highlight.
This should be on DVD – its sheer scope something you need to take in. The spontaneity acts as a memorial to a stupendous undertaking, as spellbinding as Circe and Calypso in one.
The original 2020 performance slate is appended below as contrast:
Book 1: Janet Suzman, Emma Fielding, Jim Findley
Book 2: Aaron-Louis Cadogan, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Theo Ancient
Book 3: Daphne Alexander, Jack Klaff (understudy Richard Keightley), Sally Cheng
Book 4: Naomi Frederick, Burt Caesar, Richard Keightley
Book 5: Jamael Westman, Miranda Foster, Michael Pennington
Book 6: Bu Kunene, Bea Svistunenko, Anna Demetriou
Book 7: Joelle Brabban, Christopher Ravenscroft, Michael Lumsden
Book 8: Naomi Asaturyan, Richard Derrington, Kirsty Bushell
Book 9: Rob Heanley, Hannah Kumari, Paddy Stafford
Book 10: Mercedes Assad, Cindy-Jane Armbruster, Augustina Seymour
Book 11: Stanton Wright, Lynn Farleigh, Simon Kane (understudy Richard Keightley)
Book 12: Skye Hallam, Stephanie Houtman, Lara Sawalha
Book 13: Daniel Fraser, Elliot Pritchard, Lydia Bakelmun
Book 14: Andrew Goddard, Edmund Digby-Jones, Waj Ali
Book 15: Hannah Morrish, Andrew Francis, Lucy-Jane Parkinson
Book 16: Nalan Burgess, Ellie Nunn, Alice McCarthy
Book 17: Adam Karim, Rupert Sadler, Helen Reuben
Book 18: Gavin Fowler, Rebecca Banatvala, Viss Elliot Safavi
Book 19: Leah Whitaker, Adam Sopp, Judy Rosenblatt
Book 20: Emanuel Vuso, Jessie Bedrossian, Annabel Bates
Book 21: Tiwalade Ibirogba-Olulode, Atilla Akinci, Sam Crerar
Book 22: David Sturzaker, Paula James, Issy Van Randwyck
Book 23: Ian Hallard, Asha Kingsley, Miranda Raison
Book 24: Samuel Blenkin, David Threlfall and Rachel Pickup