FringeReview UK 2015
A high ranking government minister with a colourful past is sent on a delicate diplomatic mission to Istanbul. But when his trip ends up in a horrific bar room brawl, social media explodes and the enigmatic darling of a political party becomes Europe’s most wanted man overnight. Chased by the authorities, damned by religious leaders, pursued by those looking for vengeance and head-hunted by fanatics, his Odyssey begins….
English Touring Theatre’s production of The Odyssey is a mixture of a modern day setting in which a politician has gone missing following a bar brawl in Turkey, and the classic Homeric tale where war hero Odysseus tries to get home but is sidetracked along the way by various beasts and temptresses.
It works up to a point, the juxtaposition of the modern day with the ancient, but as with any modernisation of classic texts, some of the changes feel a little laboured. It doesn’t feel like the most natural transition for Odysseus’ battle of Troy to become a football match and bar brawl in Turkey, and Penelope’s suitors becoming journalists works in as much as they are predatory vultures, taking advantage of her, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where a politician’s wife would invite journalists to live inside their home as they report on a scandal.
However, that being said, Simon Armitage’s writing of the scenes with the Prime Minister and his daughter, as he rants and rails against the folly of his errant charge, are funny and very well delivered by Simon Dutton. There was also a funny joke about pigs, which must have been added recently, showing a responsiveness to current affairs that the audience clearly appreciated.
The set worked well; a flight of steps up to a big circular entranceway, with a hydraulic platform that was a very effective boat for Odysseus and his crew. The design of the staging nicely spanned the ancient and the modern parts of the play, and in some ways was reminiscent of the simplicity of the original Greek theatres.
The general conceit was established that once the modern day Mr Smith had leapt into the Istanbul docks, he became Odysseus, and embarked upon his epic journey, as per the original Homeric tale. This worked well, and Armitage’s writing ensured that the transitions between the ancient and the modern parts of the story did not feel clunky or unnatural.
I was slightly surprised by how little music was used in the production. The Odyssey is full of dramatic scenes and dangerous encounters, which could have been greatly enhanced by a well-chosen soundtrack, or more of the live singing that we occasionally saw. The songs of the sailors and the Sirens fitted in nicely, and I think doing more with these could have helped improve the energy and atmosphere of the piece.
Overall, English Touring Theatre have created an accessible and watchable adaptation of The Odyssey in this production. It is nice to see the classic texts brought onto the modern stage, and it does make sense to try and update them with a contemporary reimagining. However, at times this led to some cringingly obvious references (such as the Prime Minister leaping around the stage proclaiming that he is Zeus), and had a slightly distancing effect, as the modern day characters were perhaps not as sympathetic as their ancient counterparts, so it was hard to care about them as much.