David Farr’s bold and inventive Bristol Old Vic production of The Odyssey was a critical success when it opened there early last year. Now, with a new leading man but with many of the same elements in place, it arrives in London.
Having been tossed to the waves by a pissed-off Poseidon, Odysseus (Stephen Noonan) is washed up on a foreign beach and immediately carted off to a detention centre for asylum-seekers where he is interrogated by a pair of immigration officials, Roger and Harold (Colin Mace and Stuart McLoughlin).
Though, for the most part, the characters wear sensible suits and vaguely militaristic fatigues, this is no stark update; instead Farr’s production revels in the fantastic, making liberal use of puppets and employing a not-quite chorus of displaced Trojans prone to bursting into song.
The Odyssey opens with an appropriately attention-grabbing thunderclap and then continues in a similarly bombastic fashion. The production exudes the same irreverent spirit as the Lyric’s previous show, Kneehigh Theatre’s superbly realised Nights At The Circus, the same affection for all forms of stagecraft. The proceedings are infused with music and magic: the thrillingly mountainous Cyclops boasts a single spotlight for a head (which turns blood red when it is blinded); Circe seduces Odysseus’ men in shadow puppet form and the Sirens’ impossible allure is conveyed by blotting out all sound save the beating of hearts.
As with Farr’s recent production at the National, The UN Inspector, the contemporary parallels are fairly broad-brush (Odysseus is not a true asylum seeker – on the contrary, he can’t wait to be sent home), but this is an altogether more balanced piece, the pace more sustainable, the writing subtler and more satisfying. And with the scenes at the detention centre, Farr does succeed in conjuring up some genuine sympathy for the plight of the Trojans without ever forcing the issue.
The six-strong cast does an admirable job of bringing the fantastical narrative to life, effortlessly slipping into song when required. Noonan is a suitably upright Odysseus, commanding yet often tormented, especially when the human aftermath of his actions are revealed to him. And Colin Mace brings a nicely comic quality to Odysseus’ interrogator, Roger; he starts out in weary jobsworth mode yet, when afforded a few moments to humanise the character, he turns what initially feels like a rather predictable digression into something genuinely moving. It’s an endearing and effective performance.
Stu Barker’s music is agreeably atmospheric and Angela Davies design skillfully compliments the onstage action. Her rather spare and forbidding set, with its gates and wire fences, provides ample opportunity for the cast to climb and clamber.
True, the energy and invention of this production tails off to some degree in the second half, but even with my sketchy secondary school knowledge of the Classics, it never failed to engage, both on a visual and an emotional level. This a rich and rewarding show, yet another theatrical treat from the Lyric.