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Review of The Odyssey at The Scoop London

The OdysseyWhen I was as young as the youngest members of the audience at the opening night of this production of The Odyssey, I took the school library copy of a translation of Homer’s poem off the shelf, flicked through it, saw hundreds of pages of verse, and promptly put it back. Even Shakespeare plays, notorious for blank verse, have sections of prose speech whenever the occasion calls for it. From what I can recall, that particular translation had none.

I should also confess that I still hadn’t read it by the time press night came along, but it would appear the production was designed with people in my position in mind. I’m one of those people who believes a show’s plotline should be understood by someone who has never encountered it before in any medium. This production can be followed well enough irrespective of anyone’s prior knowledge, and thus can be deemed a success. By the end of Part One (there are three in total) I wondered if the show’s programme could have benefitted from having a synopsis. By the end of the evening, however, enough was sufficiently explained through a combination of dramatization and good old-fashioned storytelling.

The sound was amplified quite beautifully given the outdoor space, though the actors must (and do) speak a tad slower than they might have done in an indoor proscenium arch theatre. Certain members of the audience had clearly been to previous seasons in this amphitheatre, having brought what are probably best described as camping chairs with them. Otherwise, one’s back must support itself, rather like at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre -and, like the Globe, cushions are available for hire.

A long preamble at the start of proceedings was well received, and almost took the form of a pre-show talk. Cast members appeared, wearing, between them, a mixture of ancient and modern dress, simply because they could. As they collectively explained, it’s all about telling the story with minimal props and set, and a reliance on ‘CGI’, by which they meant ‘collective group imagination’. And indeed, a suspension of disbelief is required. An example: the story is based in ancient Greece. But there are characters who speak in accents from all over the place, including Scottish, West African and, in one scene late in Part Two, North American. Make of this what you will, but to remain truly faithful to Homer’s original, the show would need to have been spoken in Greek, for starters.

Given the background information about how stories were told back in the day without the elaborate set and costume designs of the larger scale theatrical productions of today, I wondered momentarily why anyone at all was dressed in credible Greek Empire-ish costumes. In particular, the below-average temperatures and a noticeable breeze in the outdoor space left me feeling rather sorry for Alec Porter, who spent much of the evening’s proceedings without a shirt on his back. It suited the characters he was playing, I suppose, but part of me longed for a stagehand to appear for a split-second with a sweater for him to put on for a while.

Not every contemporary reference worked. I doubt whether anyone in the audience thought for a nanosecond that there having a Health and Safety Officer (Lawrence Boothman) on board a ship undertaking risk assessments was even broadly realistic. But a reworking of Baddiel and Skinner’s 1996 chart music hit ‘Three Lions’ – after the Trojan War is over, ‘the Greeks are coming home’ (geddit?) – went down a hoot with the audience, and rightly so.

The sheer number of characters, listed over two pages in the show’s programme, demonstrated the versatility of much of the cast. The stand-out performances for me came from PK Taylor’s Old Odysseus, and from Adrian Decosta’s Argos. In the former, a mixture of frustration and poignancy came across so authoritatively; in the latter, the movements and rapport with the audience was sublime and entertaining. There were points at which I frankly gave up trying to work out who was playing whom, not because the production was unnecessarily complicated, but because so much was happening that any attempt to grasp absolutely everything in its glorious fullness would result in paralysis by over-analysis.

The attention to detail is nonetheless impressive, and it’s better to have too much to take in than too little. The steady pace varies to give a sense of urgency, or foreboding, or contemplation, or indeed joy – it isn’t all about swords and slaying. As ever with theatre, portraying scenes that are supposed to have masses of people in them proves somewhat challenging. Overall, however, this bold and charming production is undoubtedly a splendid way to encounter The Odyssey, (as long as the rain stays away during the show).

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

LISTINGS INFORMATION
Gods and Monsters Theatre in association with Iris Theatre presents THE ODYSSEY – adapted from Samuel Butler’s translation of the Ancient Greek, written and directed by Phil Willmott. London’s Free Open Air Theatre Season

Creative team: Writer & Director: Phil Willmott. Set Design: Philip Eddolls. Costume Design: Penn O’Gara. Composition and Sound Design: Theo Holloway. Lighting Design: Phil Supple. Puppet Design: Jonny Dixon. Produced by Sofi Berenger for Iris Theatre. General Management: Iris Theatre.

The Scoop
Adjacent to City Hall London Bridge City Queens Walk London SE1 2DB
August 9 – September 3
Press night: 6.00pm Friday 18 August
Wet weather alternatives: 6.00pm on Saturday 19 and Sunday 20 August
Performances: Wednesday – Sunday
Part 1: 6:00pm A GREAT BIG ANCIENT GREEK ADVENTURE
Part 2: 7:30pm THE POWER OF LOVE
Part 3: 9:00pm THE HOMECOMING
Thursday evening performances will be followed by a free 30-minute Q&A with the director and cast
Captioned Performance: TBA.
Total running time:
4 hours including two intervals
Cost: Entry is free
www.godsandmonsterstheatre.com
The Scoop at London Bridge City (Formally More London) is a sunken amphitheatre on the south bank of the Thames, between London Bridge and Tower Bridge next to City Hall.

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