A classic take on a classical tale weaves the past and the present together effortlessly and intriguingly in the latest offering from the excellent English Touring Theatre and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse.
The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead uses Homer’s timeless epic as its base, but Simon Armitage’s witty and sharp script dares to use bang up to date and contemporary issues as part of the story, so this touring production is definitely both hit and myth.
In the present day a rising star government minister, Smith, is sent off to an England football World Cup qualifier in Turkey only to end up in a messy bar room brawl with other fans and locals. As Smith tries to find his way home, and the Prime Minister deals with the political ramifications, the present and past stories merge to chart the perilous voyage and emotional trek of both Smith and Odysseus.
Armitage skilfully avoids making the play too highbrow or complicated and while the running time is not far short of three hours neither time nor action is allowed to drag. In fact it is up the audience if it wants to engage with the simple story of the lost traveller finding his way home to where the heart is, or it chooses to unravel the deeper symbolic layers and make all the links to the epic.
There is pleasure to be had in both options: some parallels in the divergent plots are more obvious, such as the minister’s wife being called Penelope (plagued not by suitors as in the Greek, but here by slavering journalists eager for a story – an assured and emotion-filled performance by Susie Trayling) and the PM’s senior aide and daughter Anthea (confident stuff from Polly Frame) morphing into the goddess Athena to guide the seafarer back home, but there are neat touches throughout that are enjoyable to spot.
There’s some great casting too. Colin Tierney, playing Smith/Odysseus, is charismatic with a powerful voice and a man of the people attitude, and we share the agony of the increasingly bizarre Aegean journey, during which he meets the Cyclops, the lotus-eaters, Circe the enchantress, blind prophet Tiresias and the sirens. His speeches are rich and passionate and as he tricks Cyclops into believing his name is Nobody, there is surely a nod to the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers of today making treacherous journeys to find safety.
Simon Dutton is exceptionally strong as the xenophobic Prime Minister (often likened to Zeus), spitting out politically incorrect and vitriolic remarks in private while trying to sail untarnished through the political crisis; Lee Armstrong is good too as the troubled teenage son of Smith, bereft after his father’s disappearance and trawling his way through a copy of The Odyssey given as a birthday present.
Signe Beckmann’s design is extraordinary, overall giving the appearance of a Green amphitheatre, yet the tiers allowing the layers of story to unfold and also turning effectively into a boat and Nick Bagnall’s direction allows the nuances of the story to develop and the writer’s contrasts and contradictions to create two entirely believable worlds.
The joy of this production is it makes the ancient Greek text accessible to a modern audience without ever alienating those appreciative of the original. More than that, though, the action of each age illuminates the other in what is ultimately clever, fascinating, funny and richly engaging.
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