The Odyssey – The Island of The Sun

Lindsay Rodden
National Theatre
The Fire Station, Sunderland

Company in a NT Public Acts production
Company in an episode of The Odyssey
Company in The Lotus Eaters

The National Theatre celebrates two anniversaries this year: the 60th of it’s founding by Laurence Olivier and the fifth of a national community initiative participatory theatre programme set up by the NT, Public Acts.

The director, Emily Lim, and her colleagues wanted to produce an epic, episodic story “of endurance, resilience… finding a way of keeping going. In the context of the past few years, this is a pertinent thing to explore… keep going in the face of a world turned upside down." A version of Homer’s Odyssey was the choice; it follows the Greek hero Odysseus’, king of Ithaca, return from the Trojan War.

His long journey is full of adventure, battling mystical creatures and facing the wrath of the gods, while at home his wife is fending off suitors. The original is essentially about the journey through life, examining mortality and the importance of love, family and home. Loyalty, hospitality and vengeance were very important to ancient Greek cultural standards. These themes can be seen in other later works such as Cervantes' Spanish classic Don Quixote, who also goes on an epic journey involving heroism and survival. Interesting to see how this would translate into modern life.

The National Theatre has worked with communities across the country since 2017. The Odyssey is created in partnership with local writers and communities and staged in episodes with the final fifth one to be a full-scale musical production on the Olivier Stage of The National Theatre in London, involving hundreds of people. While episodic, each production stands alone and all parts open with the same prologue and song.

The Sunderland episode covers the stories of Odysseus’ encounter with the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis and the Cattle of Helios. The writer of the fourth episode, Lindsay Rodden, while born in Scotland, grew up in Merseyside and Donegal, where her family come from, and now lives in North Shields. She was Writer in Residence at Newcastle’s Live Theatre. The composer, Sean Cooney, has performed in hundreds of theatres and festivals internationally. Rodden and Cooney’s respective grandmothers were from Sunderland. The director, Annie Rigby, is founder and Artistic Director of Unfolding Theatre and was Resident Director of Northern Stage 2007–2008.

The bulk of the community actors first met last September and have worked long and hard; the community songs alone must have taken much work, and it is wonderful to see a stage full of people enjoying themselves. The Island of the Sun is about Odysseus and his depleted crew needing rest and their journey to find the Island of the Sun. After the initial song and introduction, the cast of 28 are in a bar and begin to recount the tale. The action is interspersed with songs and choreographed group movement. The few exotic costumes (Caitlin Mawhinney) add visual interest.

The majority of the company are on stage all the time with a few speaking the odd line, having no time to establish who they are. One thought that the intention was to connect the episode to Sunderland, but apart from the gratuitous mention of the Cat and Dog steps and the fairground being pulled down, any other local references eluded me and I do have acute hearing. I was trying hard to follow what was going on, as it is not clearly explained and I know the story. One lady who did not said, “I haven’t read The Odyssey, but this is odd!” It is not aimed at children as quite a few left early on in the show. The 12 sides of programme only had three relating to the Sunderland production. While the aims and background of companies are important, many looking at a programme are generally more interested in details of the show they have come to see.

An admirable idea to produce a community company, but difficult to achieve a balance of ability and avoid some being overshadowed. Various performers, having soft, indistinct diction, were not always audible, probably nerves, which unfortunately added to the imbalanced performance levels. This did not appear to concern the majority of the full house, as many were there to see their family or friends on stage. The people next to me, confessed non-theatregoers, had travelled from Yorkshire to watch their niece. It is excellent to fill a theatre, but would these people return if none of their family was performing?

The two main characters, played by professionals Alwen (Christina Berriman Dawson) and Ishy / Zeus, mainly the narrator (Steven Stobbs), are notable for their strength of delivery and conviction adding to the acting disparity. Some community performers also excel, Martin Wallwork as Bert / Poseidon, delivers his few words with an ease and hint of humour, Steven Udale as Francis is relaxed and at home in the part. I hesitate to use the word amateur, as many are most professional in their work, I prefer volunteer, as often the main difference is that a professional gets paid.

Theatre is many things to many people, involving a literary element, technical elements and performers; it tells a story, creates a spectacle, it can be entertaining, enlightening, inspirational, its power is endless, but above all it should engage and involve you, the audience. As Urdale said at the end, “we’re good at this, telling stories”; yes you may be, but let the audience in on it as well.

Reviewer: Anna Ambelez

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