'The Odyssey' review — an epic musical production with community at its heart

Read our four-star review of The Odyssey, an adaptation of the classic Greek tale by Chris Bush, now in performances at the National Theatre to 29 August.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Well, this gives new meaning to “epic.” The National Theatre’s latest Public Acts project is a mammoth five-show version of Homer’s The Odyssey, performed in Stoke, Doncaster, Trowbridge, Sunderland and finally in the Olivier, with a company featuring more than 150 performers – merging community groups with professional artists.

The culmination of this great theatrical journey is thoroughly enjoyable for viewers as well as participants, thanks largely to writer Chris Bush, whose wonderful Standing at the Sky’s Edge graced this space recently on its way to the West End. Her adaptation is robustly colloquial, big-hearted and funny, and well paired with varied original songs by Jim Fortune – including a genuinely lovely sea shanty.

We begin with a brisk “previously on,” recounting how a reluctant (gender-swapped) Odysseus left her son Telemachus on the island of Ithaca to go fight in the Trojan War. The goddess Athena keeps an eye on the growing boy as the years pass and the legendary warrior still hasn’t returned home.

The nymph Calypso is holding her captive, along with various unlucky tourists who stray onto their foggy island. That sets up a running theme, as Odysseus reckons with the cost to others of her adventures – explored with real pathos when she reaches the Underworld. Here, Odysseus’s mother articulates the beautiful sentiment that “parents never stop looking after children”; Odysseus in turn assures them that the dead are never forgotten.

Bush’s script is also packed with sparky details, brought to vibrant life by director Emily Lim. Odysseus listens to the shipping forecast, as issued by the Oracle of Delphi, while during an exuberant ceilidh at Zeus’s birthday party, with jolly audience interaction, the caller chirps out phrases such as “Spin like Arachne!”.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster makes a commanding Odysseus, and she unleashes a mighty voice in the emotive gospel number “Break the Curse.” However, it’s a shame we don’t get to witness Odysseus’s oft-referenced “silver-tongued” charm; the emphasis is on solemn resilience instead.

As Poseidon, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt essentially reprises her fabulously evil Stepmother from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella (no complaints here), and Amy Booth-Steel is a cheerily camp Calypso, sporting an unforgettable pink wig topped with a ship.

Tarinn Callender’s Telemachus is rather trying (he’s a man written as a boy), but well sung, while Emma Prendergast and Dylan Bennette are good value as bickering siblings Athena and Hermes. She sneeringly dubs him “the god of post and napping”.

The standout is Zubin Varla as a decidedly creepy Hades. With his receding-hairline wig, cascading-doily gown and leather boots, he looks like a cross between Rocky Horror’s Riff Raff and a glam-rock has-been. But there’s nothing comical about his eerily seductive song “Stay With Us.”

Fly Davis’s costumes are a riot throughout. However the Underworld belongs to set designer Sodeysa Greenaway-Bailey: she brilliantly illustrates its bureaucracy with huge paper mobiles tumbling from the ceiling.

Understandably, the delivery from individual community performers isn’t always great (the accompanying captions help, as well as adding to the inclusive ethos), but that huge, diverse company filling the Olivier stage is a glorious sight. Lim and movement director Dan Canham do remarkable work to marshal large numbers with ease.

It’s a stirring demonstration that theatre belongs to everyone, that it unites communities and gives people a much-needed form of expression. Given our current government’s warped attitude to the arts, that feels like a public act of resistance. Bravo to the National.

The Odyssey is at the National Theatre through 29 August.

Photo credit: The Odyssey (Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)

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