The Odyssey: Episode 5 - The Underworld

Chris Bush with music by Jim Fortune
National Theatre Public Acts
National Theatre (Olivier Theatre)

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The Odyssey: Episode 5 - The Underworld
Amy Booth-Steel as Calypso and company Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Odysseus and company Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Odysseus and Zubin Varla as Hades Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Braulio Chimbembe (foreground) as Zeus and company Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
The company Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Odysseus (centre) and company Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

This is the final part in an NT Public Acts nationwide initiative that reimagines the themes of Homer’s epic in a contemporary way: most obviously in making Odysseus a female leader (though the name keep its masculine ending). It is the last episode in a sequence that has already seen earlier events from Odysseus attempt to return home from Troy staged in participatory community productions in Stoke-Upon-Trent, Doncaster, Trowbridge and Sunderland, each written by a local author.

Brief introductory scenes encapsulate twenty years in a few minutes presenting Odysseus and the Ithicans being called to join the war against Troy. She leaves behind her baby son, Telemachus, who rapidly grows to manhood and goes in search of his now missing mother.

She has been trapped for years on the island of Ogygia, ruled by Calypso, which has been surrounded by fogs that prevent anyone leaving. Athena, goddess protectress of Odysseus and Telemachus, joins the boy in petitioning her father Zeus and the gods on Olympus to release his mother, though Poseidon (now a goddess) still wants revenge for Odysseus' blinding of her son, the Cyclops Polyphemus. Though the mists clear, Odysseus must still face other dangers and the gods insist she visit the Underworld where those who have died in his service will confront her.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s Odysseus seems a tough nut, she overcomes her frustrations by keeping busy, a woman of action rather then reflexion, but we don’t really get to know her. Though she is central (and the staging often reflects this literally), there are more dazzling performances from Amy Booth-Steel as an outrageous Calypso, a flurry of pink reminiscent of Barbara Cartland with her coiffure topped by a galleon, so dame-like this could have been a drag act. Zubin Varla’s Hades is equally outrageous, strutting around in black-gloved travesty with high-heeled boots and a long white dress of layered fringes, his façade of friendliness hiding something smartly sinister.

Costume designer Fly Davis has had great fun with the costumes, with the gods in particular. Zeus (Braulio Chimbembe) may be smoothly gold-suited but Poseidon (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) looks like a Zeigfield star in her mediterranean blue extravagance and Demeter (Ruth Christopher) has half of the Chelsea Show on her head.

When the stage fills with guests to celebrate Zeus’s birthday, there is glitter and colour that could furnish a decade of panto, but it is in some of its small touches that things are most effective. For example, the way the wings on Hermes’ (Dylan Bennette) head get larger with each appearance to match his growing confidence; the restraint of the costume for Emma Prendergast’s gentle, caring Athena, quickly disguising her divinity; the handling of Odysseus; meeting with her mother Anticlea (Sue Agyakwa) and the way the relationship between the ghosts of Achilles (Conor Murphy) and Patroclus (Roderick Lukenge) confined in his wheelchair, is so subtlety suggested.

What is more obvious is the skill with which director Emily Lim and movement director Dan Canham have handled huge numbers on stage. With professional actors, community cats drawn from all the previous episodes as well as the London ones, there are at least 160 people on stage. With professional and community actors working together, musicians, Impact Dance members, Haringay Vox Choir, London Bodhrán Band and the South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus all taking part, this is a remarkable achievement.

There is no Penelope equivalent in this story, no loyal dog Argus of long memory, no suitors with an eye on a power grab for Odysseus and Telemachus to vanquish, but a happy ending as convenient as in one of Shakespeare’s comedies. An ending in celebration of the project’s achievement, which spreads a warmth through the whole auditorium.

This isn’t a ground-breaking new treatment of a millennia-old poem, but it is a remarkable example of how theatre can work with and for the community. It celebrates five years of NT Public Acts, and the enthusiasm it generates and the effect it has had on communities shows how worthwhile it is.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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