Jason and the Argonauts
Battersea Arts Centre
We've all been warned at least once with the ancient adage "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts". However, BAC's rendering of the ancient myth of Jason and his Argonauts' epic quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece is a very generous Christmas gift only a fool would fail to appreciate. This show should entrance young audiences with the sheer scope of its daring and imaginative powers. For newcomers to the theatrical experience, it is a fine introduction to the very essence of theatre magic.
Director Carl Heap has used the Main Hall to place the audience in close proximity to the action on both sides of the playing area. No-one is ever more than a few feet away, involved almost and the sense of a communal adventure is enhanced by an awareness of the audience opposite. Audience participation is inevitable in singing along, taking a group photo of the departing questors and even taking an imaginary oar and helping the crew in a crisis. Most stimulating in the collaboration between actors and audience is the agreement to use the imagination and transform everyday objects into the stuff and matter of mythological fantasy.
A village fête on the green outside the Golden Fleece pub on a idyllic summer's afternoon: suddenly Morris dancers, cricketers, scout masters, country bumpkins and toffs bent on an afternoon of noblesse oblige are transformed and transported into ancient Greece, a pair of picnic tables, a couple of ladders, some ropes and sheets are shuffled to create a magnificent sailing bark with sails flapping in the wind. Terrifying monsters are created with the help of three cricket jumpers and a pair of stilts, actors with paint cans strapped to their feet hold up sticks mounted with a bicycle seat and handlebars as they stamp rhythmically and fret and roar like bulls. Gods, harpies and heroes fly through the air in mortal combat on wires just under the halls' roof. Exhilarating stuff, and yes, true theatre magic. The aerial combat between the harpies and heroes swinging on wires and shrieking above our heads was deliciously scarey.
This is a style of theatre at which the British excel. In it's heyday in the '70s Bill Bryden's Mysteries at the NT and Trevor Nunn's Nicholas Nickelby garnered an iconic status. It's feels very good to see that BAC is blowing life back into the genre and at a fraction of the cost.
What makes this type of production so powerful is the community spirit it inspires among audiences and actors. Carl Heap has a solid cast of troupers here. Besides vigour, talent and versatility, there is commitment, collaboration, teamwork. It is a fine example of what an ensemble cast can achieve, and only an ensemble cast acutely attuned to the rhythms and pacing of the action can pull of a show of such calibre and complexity and make it seem effortless. They sustain this for two and three-quarter riveting hours and even have enough energy over for a final song and a Morris dance. As they say in Latinate climes: Bravo!
This is not the type of seasonal show that offers easy entertainment through gimmicks and gags. It is honest, truthful, thoughtful, serious and modest to boot. It is a tale of endeavour, of the triumph of the average humane spirit rising to meet adversity against overwhelming odds time and again. And success is achieved though simple human qualities: commitment, trust, loyalty, friendship, steadfastness. It is a fine tale for Christmas and the triumph in staging an epic tale on this scale is a parallel which impresses. The humour is gentle and endearing, the jokes easily recognisable: Orpheus (mythical shaman and musician) is a scout master, Hercules a cricketer with a Yorkshire twang and a fluffy toy dog, Pollox defies the audience to mispronounce his name, and the gods are parodies of the meddling upper classes.
For kids of all ages until 17th January at the BAC.
Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher