Modern telling of an ancient tale

The irresistible Circe (Ella Vale) has porcine plans for Odysseus's hapless crew. Pictures: Robert Day

The Odyssey

Derby Theatre

*****

I CURSED the motorway and its 15-mile tailback which prevented me catching the early evening staged preamble to Derby Theatre’s world premiere of The Odyssey.

For what I missed was Caroline Horton, directed by Lucy Doherty, in Penelope Retold, her daring one-person show re-enacting the fraught long years passed waiting by Odysseus’ patient, put-upon wife.

With our scrupulously loyal if exhausted heroine ensconced on a vast higgledy-piggledy marital bed, sunk among the flotsam of a life with and without a man, this imaginative show, not much off an hour long, gives us the feminine point of view.

I enquired of some of the young teens and 20-somethings around me later that evening how they had found this feminine take on Homer, and they assured me it was riveting: that Horton’s performance was gripping, aptly dotty and poignant; that the atmosphere in the theatre space was tense and rapt; that the moods swung from nostalgic and tender to dangerous and angry as her world (and the bed) implodes. What they saw in Penelope was a real and tangible, self-exposing, battered and repressed whole person, whose ardent hopes and fears and not least, bitter resentment build to a depressing, unexpected end.

As much at sea as her husband - Caroline Horton stars in her one-man pre-play about Penelope

My reward for M1 persistence was The Odyssey itself, Mike Kenny’s wholly fresh and original take on the Homeric myth. This is a terrific, life-enhancing show, enacted by eight polished actors (three girls and five men), two of whom, the commanding and utterly engaging Wole Sawyerr and the affectingly doubting Emma Beattie, take the parts of the errant husband and not-errant wife; and half a dozen of whom took on multiple roles – dutiful, mysterious, alluring, aggressive.

These included one breathtakingly beautiful singer, Anna Westlake, her solo from the auditorium touching in the extreme, amid the folk music that perambulated Sarah Brigham’s galvanised, refined, constantly well-moved in-house staging; and a fiddler from the cast (Ivan Stott, also the hospitable Alcinous) who wrought such adorable minstrel sounds one could have listened to him all evening. The ensemble is at home in a medieval-style round as a modern mock-ditty or Georgian or Queen Anne catch that could come from John Blow or John Gay.

In an initial trompe-l’oeil, the wine-dark Aegean (later Ionian) Sea predominates: - a vast blue cloth that later rears up again to form the terrifying devouring whirlpool Scylla. A recurrent feature throughout is a large (also dissectible) cable drum that in the Polyphemus scene (Christopher Price as the man-eating giant, poised on disconcertingly sturdy stilts, supplied a disgruntled sheep-adoring monstrosity, sporting a miner’s lamp as his single steely blue gaze) seemed like an ominous giant eye itself, an ill presence forever scowling at the audience: one of designer Barney George’s many fine touches; his seaweed or wrack-strewn cave, chthonic, earthbound, being another.

Ella Vale, later so effective as the suitor-seducing maid who meets a graphic sticky end, supplies both a delicate benign nymph Nausicaa and an equally rapacious, almost see-through Circe: a sly, inveigling presence and an actress you don’t quickly forget. The human-played baas and oinks - and the Odysseus-bearing ram - are pretty memorable too. These epic scenes three millennia old are each sprucely captured in this effective, poetically-honed pruning, Only one sequence seemed to droop visually and dramatically – the release of the winds by the curious crew, who look for gold and release a stormy maelstrom that dashes hopes of return. None of them, bar the boss, will make it home.

Sawyerr’s canny Trojan hero is robust and convincing throughout, a hero of flesh and blood as well as brain and sword, equally convincing when lusting for the sensual Circe, strapped to the mast so he can hear the Sirens’ song; caring for his loyal retainers; grieving for his men; a dignified father and husband.

 Resisting the elements - Wole Sawyerr as Odysseus (atop) with Ivan Stott on violin

Rich Dolphin’s Telemachus is a diffident, awkward 19 year old, lacking in nous but not in noble good intentions. A special joy is Ivan Stott’s creaky swineherd Eumaeus, the wrinkled retainer who is the first to whom Odysseus (latterly) reveals himself; Anna Westlake’s Eurycleia (the nurse) is sympathetic and trustworthy; Adam Horvath a bitter Antinous; while Price’s Cyclops morphs ominously into Eurymachus, the most uncouth and dangerous of the savagely self-indulgent, sprawling interlopers gaily bankrupting Ithaca’s palace.

But capping it all is the teamwork, as this cast shifts with ease from role to role, and interacts to form the leader’s dependable, deferential crew. The show wins time after time with Brigham’s inteligent stagecraft, showing the city-university run Derby Theatre, here at least, well up to the A1 calibre of Stephen Edwards old Derby Playhouse  Mike Kenny’s chiselled text works as many wonders as Tim Skelly’s experienced lighting: most appealing of when Kenny swerves into near-Shakespeare (‘My home is more of a sty than is your byre’, ‘This shows neither good manners nor common decency’, ‘You have convinced my unbelieving head’, ‘Sweep and wash and make the place smell honey-sweet’), achieving an adaptation of Homer’s spirit and tight-packed epithets as stirring and emotive in its way as Virgil’s Aeneid – or in other respects, The Tempest. A splendid achievement, vivid and memorable.  To 01-03-14.

Roderic Dunnett 

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