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Fringe Online 2020

Low Down

Jermyn Street’s Tom Littler directs 72 actors in the 24 books of The Odyssey available till October 19th. Then by request.


Talk about a big world in here. Jermyn Street’s Artistic Director Tom Littler has undertaken several inspired initiatives since lockdown, including two Zoom performances and the performance of Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets. Nothing anywhere prepares us for 72 actors over 12 hours and 24 Books of Homer’s The Odyssey. No-one will quibble it’s taken ten. This smallest of West End producing theatres takes on the most spectacular production since lockdown.

Using Emily Wilson’s acclaimed translation helps: a fleet limber iambic pentameter replaces the original dactylic tread and chant. There’s a swing and sting to it, magisterial where it needs to be, though more lean and sinewed with sudden lyric eddies of repose. Very like the story it conveys with no whiff of archaism, no jolt of contemporaneity that so quickly jades.

There’s things you wholly forget in the original this version reminds you of, these actors vivify. Janet Suzman’s magisterial Athena starts off seeing how Odysseus’ patient wife Penelope is girt round in her own Ithica by ravenous suitors. She’s waited around 17 of the full 20 years, and the Trojan War took only ten. Athena helps Odysseus’ now grown son Telemechus to search out his father. Athena herself discovers Odysseus imprisoned seven of his ten homecoming years by enchanter Circe and gets him out of jail free. Now this hadn’t been un-enjoyable though he is a bit enchanted.

Homer’s 8th Century BC epic treats of how the wily Odysseus (he’s always wily, always cunning, it’s his prefix) takes another ten years to get home after ten years at the Siege of Troy; it’s Homer’s second great epic, after the Iliad which relates part of that earlier ordeal. The Odyssey’s riven with storytelling inside the story itself. There’s a double narrative, and points of retelling – Odysseus at the court of Alkinoös in Phalákia is just one storyteller of himself. This production’s brilliance re-invokes the text as oracular, a telling.

How would you stage this in normal times? A campfire, each narrator passing a flaming torch from one to another perhaps. You could see this as points lit up on a stage, with a few actors suddenly near the audience, sitting amongst them – not something we’re likely to see for a while. Inevitably Under Milk Wood comes to mind. This could easily be a radio production but many will remember what Terry Hands managed with that play. You could almost imagine this as a vast sea of voices, an audience in darkness surrounded by a semi-circle planetarium of actors, each suddenly pin-pricked into visibility.

Here each actor streams from their own home, many are off the page, each bring their own pulse and pace to the performance, giving the whole an elasticity, a timbral richness, its moments of repose with stentorian – and erotic – arousal.

Between each – and the transitions are seamlessly handled – there’s a glittering wine-dark sea, later a sunset over waves, their sound and the particular part of the poem being read and by who. Each book has three actors, and their line-numbers are helpfully added. Many will want Wilson’s superb translation after this too.

Many Jermyn Street actors return and if you’ve been lucky enough to see some of them, you’ll recall some flitting half-light of a prior performance. Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s teasing, commanding voice (Book 2 central section), the infinite registers in Michael Pennington’s (Book 5 end), the heartrending inwardness of Hannah Morrish (opening Book 15) her younger Athena cunning and directive with Telemechus.

The full cast’s below, and give a wonderful traversal. From students just graduating (like Tiwalade Ibirogba-Olulode who opens Book 21 with an alert freedom) to the most revered, it’s fascinating to see what the youngest promise, what the most seasoned deliver with an oracular importunity.

There’s technical hitches – how could there not be? The miracle is there’s so few. One actor’s seen waiting in the wings while a disembodied voice delivers. At one moment we’re out of synch, and microphone quality – like interest rates – may vary. But not often, and not much. One reason you don’t want this to be an entirely aural experience is the address of the actors: they’re compelling, you want to keep looking at them.

To go through each performance would exhaust any reader. The climax of Book 9 with its Cyclops is one highpoint. The close though – Books 22, 23 and 24, might suffice to show just how Littler has so cunningly placed each actor to resonate with a given part of text.

Book 22 contains the most terrible part in all Homer: the hanging of the 12 slave girls who slept with the suitors. As if they’re chattels now stained, with no agency, being women. There’s elements in the victorious homecoming anyone will thrill to, but the double massacre underscores just how far our sensibility is from this unflinching telling, gravely, mercilessly delivered by David Sturzaker’s granitic Odysseus; Paula James and Issy Van Randwyck alternating memorably as those loyal and disloyal, the latter forced to wash away the blood, remove bodies and then be hanged. The terror and pity of this is unbearable and for a while you hate Odysseus.

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 implacable ancient neat.

All through these performances one should add the witness of live chat where responses are exchanged. It’s not there of course in the YouTube afterwards, but for those who’ve seen this live, it’s a point of reference, something to share blissfully with other theatre-goers, speaking yet not interrupting.

Ian Hallard opening Book 23 is superb: animated – every word weighed, every gesture subtly brought out. Then the querulous and gradually thawed voicing of Asha Kingsley and Miranda Raison taking Penelope’s traumas travails and joyous awakening amidst a re-telling of what occurs whilst she slept. And after doubts the rapture of 20 years’ pent-up desires.

Book 24 skews us to what promises as another eternal round of fighting. Samuel Blenkin is the perfect choice for Telemechus, a youth shrouded in his father’s fame, slowly coming to himself to stand foursquare beside his father, trying not to be awed. He’s exactly how you think Telemechus should sound. David Threlfall’s dark-threaded Odysseus rises full of flinty power – with a remarkably lively, alert truthful rendition; and a drop in tone registering Odysseus’ elderly father. Threlfall’s utterly rapt with his material. And then there’s Rachel Pickup, Athena, rounding us back to Suzman’s invocations ten hours ago. Pickup radiates perfect benediction, a sibyl halting the fighting: in a restrained descant touching steel, she calls on the wanderer to desist and cease. The waves, the intermisson’s aural constant, fade us out.

This should be on DVD – its sheer scope something you need to take in: sales of it would raise much-needed funds. Doubtless some actors and Littler would wish to correct small technical details, perhaps re-run a very few performances for those reasons only. The spontaneity though could otherwise act as a memorial to a stupendous undertaking.

The full performance slate is below:

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