The Odyssey

Homer
Jermyn Street Theatre, London Review Bookshop, W W Norton

The Company Credit: Jermyn Street Theatre

Two and a half thousand years ago, the epic poem traditionally attributed to blind Homer was already treated as a classic, its story of wily Odysseus’ ten-year struggle to get home from Troy and the situation that was waiting for him in Ithaca. It had probably already been passed down orally, told by bards like the one described by Odysseus at the court of Alkinoös in Phalákia.

You’d be hard pressed today to find a storyteller with a prodigious memory to recite the tale to guests as you would have listened around the hearthstone in some ancient prince’s megaron, but this is an opportunity to experience a modern equivalent. 72 actors, directed by Jermyn Street’s Artistic Director Tom Littler, follow each other in continuous online presentation in a 21st-century version of the Homeric poem by poet Emily Wilson, the first woman to publish an English translation.

Like so many other productions we have been watching in recent months, each actor is making their contribution from their own home, linked (to make the timing and transitions smoother) first by a shot of the sea’s surface, later a sunset landscape, on which the titles of each of the poem's 24 books can be presented, while the lines assigned to each performer are identified by number for those who may wish to match them to a text.

Transmission began at 9AM on the London Review Bookshop’s YouTube channel, transferring (after a short interval which gives time to transfer) to the Jermyn Street Theatre channel at noon. The performance is available on-demand for a week so you can catch up or dip in as convenient, identify place by book and line count.

Such an ambitious undertaking offers many challenges and not all runs smoothly. Technological hiccups sometimes put sound and vision slightly out of synch and for one episode, instead of the actor who is delivering an excellent vocal performance, we see another waiting his turn to appear later and some domestic computer cameras and microphones aren’t as good as others. It says much for the input from the actors that this didn’t stop me watching. It is well worth practicing a little patience to experience this epic event.

Dame Janet Suzman begins the saga, Michael Pennington (playing Prospero at Jermyn Street when coronavirus interrupted), Burt Caesar, Lynn Farleigh, Jack Klaff, David Threlfall and Izzy van Randwyck among the other seasoned performers appearing, with many other alumni from Jermyn Street productions. The full cast is listed later.

Emily Wilson provides a direct and natural translation in contemporary language which connects directly, nothing archaic about it, and that connection with the hearer is aided by much of the Homeric text being in dialogue form, permitting some characterisation and aided by face-to-face confrontation with the viewer.

This isn’t the story of one voyage, but two. It begins with the goddess Athena seeing the situation on Ithaca where a horde of would-be suitors for Odysseus’ wife, now assumed to be a widow, are sponging off her household, her son Telemachus trying to handle them. With her help, Telemachus sails away to find out what has happened to his father.

Odysseus is an ocean away on the island of Calypso, a prisoner of hers for seven years. Athena now makes her free him, but it is only in Phalákia, on his journey home, that he begins to tell the full story of his voyages. By then, we have had other stories within the story: like that of Ares and Aphrodite.

I followed the story through to Book 9 and the Cyclops before I paused to file this, but I’ll return with 15 more books to go. There is a simplicity about this presentation that matches the situation: not a single bard singer performing to a gathering but a company of actors (six dozen!), each speaking to us in our own homes. This is a reading, produced remotely. There are occasional hesitations, some performances more telling than others, but though I have long known the story, I’ll go back to it and catch the rest while it is streaming.

The full cast is:

  • Book 1: Janet Suzman, Emma Fielding, Jim Findley
  • Book 2: Aaron-Louis Cadogan, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Theo Ancient
  • Book 3: Daphne Alexander, Jack Klaff (understudy Richard Keightley), Sally Cheng
  • Book 4: Naomi Frederick, Burt Caesar, Richard Keightley
  • Book 5: Jamael Westman, Miranda Foster, Michael Pennington
  • Book 6: Bu Kunene, Bea Svistunenko, Anna Demetriou
  • Book 7: Joelle Brabban, Christopher Ravenscroft, Michael Lumsden
  • Book 8: Naomi Asaturyan, Richard Derrington, Kirsty Bushell
  • Book 9: Rob Heanley, Hannah Kumari, Paddy Stafford
  • Book 10: Mercedes Assad, Cindy-Jane Armbruster, Augustina Seymour
  • Book 11: Stanton Wright, Lynn Farleigh, Simon Kane (understudy Richard Keightley)
  • Book 12: Skye Hallam, Stephanie Houtman, Lara Sawalha
  • Book 13: Daniel Fraser, Elliot Pritchard, Lydia Bakelmun
  • Book 14: Andrew Goddard, Edmund Digby-Jones, Waj Ali
  • Book 15: Hannah Morrish, Andrew Francis, Lucy-Jane Parkinson
  • Book 16: Nalan Burgess, Ellie Nunn, Alice McCarthy
  • Book 17: Adam Karim, Rupert Sadler, Helen Reuben
  • Book 18: Gavin Fowler, Rebecca Banatvala, Viss Elliot Safavi
  • Book 19: Leah Whitaker, Adam Sopp, Judy Rosenblatt
  • Book 20: Emanuel Vuso, Jessie Bedrossian, Annabel Bates
  • Book 21: Tiwalade Ibirogba-Olulode, Atilla Akinci, Sam Crerar
  • Book 22: David Sturzaker, Paula James, Issy Van Randwyck
  • Book 23: Ian Hallard, Asha Kingsley, Miranda Raison
  • Book 24: Samuel Blenkin, David Threlfall and Rachel Pickup

Reviewer: Howard Loxton