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The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead

Simon Armitage
Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse with English Touring Theatre
Liverpool Everyman

Not easy, turning an epic poem of 12,000 lines into a 2-hour stage play. Nevertheless, that’s what poet Simon Armitage has attempted to do with The Odyssey, Homer’s incredible tale of heroism and adventure set against the backdrop of ancient Greek legends.

Armitage has chosen to blend the essence of the original alongside a contemporary tale of political intrigue set against the run-up to a general election. It’s certainly a bold move, fusing an epic adventure story with an everyday tale of political shenanigans.

Both strands—modern and ancient—are intertwined via Colin Tierney’s dual roles of government minister Smith (modern) and Odysseus (ancient). As the latter, Tierney turns in a performance of Corbyn-like zeal tempered with naivety. In Turkey to watch a football match, Smith inexplicably gets involved with a group of soccer hooligans—thugs who then proceed to bottle an innocent bystander.

On the run from a crime he didn’t commit, Smith and hooligans jump into the Bosphorous, back a few thousand years into a world of sirens, cyclops and soothsayers. Meanwhile, back home wife and son are assailed throughout by a couple of nasty members of the gutter press.

Although Armitage’s script and Everyman staging are undeniably ambitious and at times visually stunning, this production somehow feels a little tentative, occasionally repetitive. The first act in particularly—at a hefty one hour and twenty minutes—feels overly long.

The heroes seem to be forever sailing, stopping and falling into yet more adventure. For all that, there is not really enough in the way of conflict between Odysseus and his men, busy as they are getting in and out of various scrapes. At one point they even take on a cyclops-cum-Tellytubbie.

Punctuating these adventures are the contemporary scenes in which Simon Dutton’s Prime Minister and Polly Frame’s PA are endlessly haunted by the spectre of political scandal. While these interactions are always crisp and at times very funny, this modern strand also struggles to develop. Back and forth it goes. Ancient to modern and back to ancient.

A strong ensemble cast try to inject urgency and humour into proceedings. It’s Dutton though—in whom the humanity of Alan B’stard meets the linguistic dexterity of Malcolm Tucker—who steals the show. Frame’s Anthea is spot on too as a portrayal of hardnosed political spin doctoring.

Signe Beckmann’s set is also worth a mention. Of particular note are the rather ingenious steps which effortlessly transform into the creaking prow of a longboat replete with mast and oars. Nice touch

Taken overall however this production is rather an uneven affair. Direction is sometimes shaky—transitions in particularly could be smoother, but then again there are an awful amount of props coming off an on the set. Tough night for the supporting cast, who acquit themselves well enough in this area.

Thankfully, the second act moves along more swiftly. Odysseus / Smith’s arrival home and subsequent exoneration is welcome if rather stagey. Had but it ended there, at the reunion. Armitage has certainly packed a heck of a lot into this adaptation, too much perhaps.

Arguably, the audience are not really prepared for the ensuing domestic between Smith and his wife (Susie Trayling). After all, we know nothing of their relationship pre-Turkish jaunt, thus it all feels a little superfluous, tagged on almost. But that’s nothing compared to the penultimate scene.

Chris Reilly’s anti-UKIP rant is as surprising as it is smug. Playing to the stalls no doubt, but I can’t have been the only member of the audience shuffling uncomfortably in his seat at this point, wondering why on earth this production had suddenly resorted to polemicizing. All of which goes to show that less can sometimes definitely be more.

Reviewer: David Sedgwick