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The Odyssey: The Underworld at the National Theatre

A longitudinal story, Odysseus (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) finds herself unable to recall what her son Telemachus (played by three actors – ‘child’ Arnold Moepi-Mathanda, ‘teen’ Philip Owusu and ‘adult’ Tarinn Callender) looks like, because it’s been twenty years since she saw him last, for reasons explained in the narrative. Set in an era modern enough to include tourists visiting the Greek islands who are then told they won’t be going anywhere any time soon as their onward travel is delayed, is the production trying a bit too hard to be relevant for contemporary audiences?

Emma Prendergast (Athena) and company in NT Public Acts production of The Odyssey Episode 5 - The Underworld at the National Theatre © Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.
Emma Prendergast (Athena) and company in NT Public Acts production of The Odyssey Episode 5 – The Underworld at the National Theatre © Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

It almost doesn’t matter, as this bonkers storyline might well have used a holiday resort setting for a contribution from the South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus, and a later birthday party setting for a song and dance, which even had the audience participating with hand movements during a ceilidh, but these provided a joyous, carnival-like atmosphere, lightening the mood in what might otherwise have been a dark and brooding tale, entirely full of strife and fighting. As it was, even as the challenge is laid down to Odysseus that there is a way back home but only through rough seas and a journey through the underworld, one could tell from a mile off that she was always going to make it one way or another, but there’s much to be enjoyed in seeing how it all happens.

Hades (Zubin Varla), god of the dead and king of the underworld, is a suitably deceptive figure, civilised towards Odysseus, even friendly, but switching into a harsh authoritarian personality in order to control his citizens. The costumes (Fly Davis), especially those of the gods, are creative and colourful, whilst the musicians and chorus are positioned above the stage. If that wasn’t enough, the cast would use the stalls’ entrances as well as the stage ones, giving a somewhat immersive feel to proceedings.

The show seemed to be at its best with everyone present in the big ensemble numbers – the vast Olivier Theatre stage by comparison looked very bare in a one-on-one consultation between Odysseus and Hades. A smattering of British Sign Language added to the inclusive nature of the show, as did the captions. An extraordinary achievement, with community groups holding their own with professional actors, all blending in with one another, the production is a prime example of the old adage that it’s not the winning that counts, but the taking part.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Staged as a full-scale musical production, The Odyssey: The Underworld features a 160-strong company of people from across the nation alongside a cast of professional actors, musicians and cameo performance groups to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Public Acts, the NT’s nationwide programme to create extraordinary acts of theatre and community.

The full professional cast includes Amy Booth-Steel (Blue Jean) as Calypso, Tarinn Callender (Hamilton) as Telemachus, Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Dune) as Odysseus, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (Hex) as Poseidon, Emma Prendergast (Eastenders) as Athena, and Zubin Varla (Tammy Faye) as Hades.

Cameo performances will also be featured from The London Bodhrán Band, Haringey Vox Choir, Impact Dance Group, and South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus.

The creative team also includes set designer Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey, movement director Dan Canham, costume designer Fly Davis, music supervisor and musical director Tarek Merchant, lighting designer Joshua Pharo and sound designer Paul Arditti.

The Odyssey: Episode 5 – The Underworld
a new play by Chris Bush with music by Jim Fortune
Until 28 August 2023

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