The Factory and Creation Theatre
York Theatre Royal
Launching 2013's TakeOver Festival at York Theatre Royal is a return visit from The Factory, 'a working collective of over 200 actors, writers and directors.' The dozen performers directly involved in this evening's version of the Odyssey line up on stage, dressed in nondescript modern clothing and each equipped with a wooden staff and a plain hoop which soon become used in the creation of some striking yet simple stage imagery.
But first, one of the ensemble steps forward to explain the rules. Inspired by the oral tradition behind the tales eventually written down by Homer (if such an individual ever even really existed), the Factory aims to retell the stories by combining improvisatory elements and a thorough knowledge of the original texts.
The key organising principle of the performance is that it is, like the Homeric version, divided into 24 'books'. For each book, we are given a brief overview, and a member of the audience draws a 'shard' at random from a bowl passed through the auditorium. There are 24 shards, each used once in the course of the evening, and these contain a simple instruction for the rule by which this book must be enacted. These rules vary from 'sing the book' and 'in Ancient Greek' to more familiar drama games such as the rule by which each line must have only three words, or in which members of the audience join the cast to act as puppet masters moulding them and moving them round the stage.
Tim Carroll, the director of the show, has also invited contributions from various writers in response to each of the books of the Odyssey, and some of the shards invite audience nominations for the performer whose tale we wish to hear, or instruct a performer to 'read the book', simply reading aloud the story as reimagined by the modern writer.
Such moments might evoke memories of sitting cross-legged at school story time, as well as echoes of the bardic narrators of Ancient Greece. They also suggest the sheer quantity of material which has been created for the performance and which is never performed, the aleatory nature of the selection of material ensuring that some performers and tales are foregrounded and some books more clearly conveyed than others.
Yet this is not merely a spurious imposition on the text(s), or some escaped rehearsal room exercise. The performance comes to life thanks to the commitment of the performers as an ensemble, and their evident passion for storytelling and for communicating the fantastic tales of the Ancient Greek myths. They are talented performers, too, and the a cappella choral work and sense of ensemble are both striking and strong. So the shifts between prepared snippets and more wholly improvised passages are fairly seamless, and indeed in keeping with the spirit of the evening and of the Homeric tradition.
The show has numerous highs—the 'radio play' version of one of the early books was superbly conjured and showed the ensemble at its strongest, while elsewhere, visual elements were swiftly and simply created with the performers' bodies and the simple props.
Most of all, the air buzzes with stories—even at the interval the performers mingle with the audience to elicit memories and tales of home-coming, keeping the evening focused always on discussing the evening's themes, telling stories, and sharing a sense of event. It's a show which will be substantially different every time, but these centuries-old tales are in safe hands with this committed and talented ensemble.
Reviewer: Mark Smith