“Intriguing and baffling…” The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead — Reviewed

Colin Tierney Roger Evans & Chris Reilly; The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead © Gary Calton-slider

Jack Roe finds that a new interpretation of Homer’s classic is intriguing and completely baffling in equal measure, leaving the audience as lost as poor Odysseus…

A night at the theatre is never an opportunity to pass up. Tickets to Simon Armitage’s new show — The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead at the Everyman theatre — even less so. With this in mind, it was with quiet and giddy anticipation that I took my seat in the stalls and waited for a show that — according to the press material — combines the enduring ancient legend of Odysseus and his epic journey home (from the fall of Troy) with a politically-flavoured yarn set in the modern day.

Sometimes in theatre, as in life, it’s the hope that kills you.

To be clear, this show is not a catastrophe, despite its undeniable flaws. It is, in turns, intriguing and baffling, engaging and off-putting, entertaining and overwrought; but let’s begin with the positives.

“Nick Bagnall’s direction seems close to flawless”

Nick Bagnall’s direction seems close to flawless; despite the fanciful ancient world which is given little support by the minimalist stage design and asks a lot of the audience’s imagination. The cast is fully committed and well-drilled throughout the two-hours-50-minute performance. There was no point wherein the performance was anything less than completely professional: no missed cues, dropped lines or car-crashes, which reflects just as well on the director as the players. To coerce such a slick and compact show from such a weighty script and minimalist production is no small task, and one which Bagnall on this evidence has met head-on.

In terms of the cast, special mention is reserved for the lead, Colin Tierney as Smith/Odysseus, who successfully carried a show that could, through its bizarre parallel/substitute storyline technique (more on that later) have descended into something approaching farce, on the sheer willpower and earnestness of his performance. Like the director, a lot was asked of him and he duly delivered. Elsewhere, the Prime Minister’s verbose pomposity was delivered brilliantly by Simon Dutton, easily the highlight of the scenes set in the present day. His extremely poor taste rant about the European mainland was, for me, an overall highlight. The several characters portrayed by Danusia Samal, from the witch Circe to the Leader of the Opposition, were all delivered well and displayed a range of talents and styles that ensured that the young actress was probably the show’s standout performer.

Polly Frame & Simon Dutton; The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead © Gary Calton-slider

In terms of the production, the set design and lighting were minimal throughout with only slight changes between scenes used to signify a shift in location. The economical and intelligent use of props, sound effects and costume was another point to be commended, allowing the audience to keep up to speed with the shifting landscape of the story without detracting or distracting from the plot.

In terms of performance, production and direction then, all signs point towards a professional, skilled company in touch with their material. On closer inspection of Armitage’s dialogue and story (his second work for theatre, the first being last year’s critically-acclaimed The Last Days of Troy; also directed by Nick Bagnall), the show does begin to unravel somewhat. In fact, the more the story is examined, the less it makes sense.

“The experience soon fell away to something more disjointed”

The focal point of Armitage’s narrative is the interplay between two parallel storylines: an interpretation of Homer’s well-known epic poem The Odyssey (believed to have been composed at the end of the eighth century BC), and a modern day political scandal, replete with several painful winks to the contemporary political climate; including one or two references to the current refugee crisis played for laughs that did rather stick in the throat. While this is an interesting approach that served to add a real sense of intrigue (as to how exactly the story would unfold), the experience soon fell away to something more disjointed.

Smith is a high-ranking government minister sent on a last-minute diplomatic trip to Istanbul. Involved in a career-destroying bar fight, he goes on the run from the authorities and the press, and is presumed lost at sea (hence the title). At the moment that Smith’s storyline morphs into that of Odysseus’s, it is inferred that the familiar Odyssey — war hero travels home, gets lost, adventure ensues — will act as a metaphor for a modern political and social parallel; and indeed, that is the attempt. The result, however, is more than a little clumsy.

Sule Rimi & Colin Tierney; The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead © Gary Calton-slider

For example, although it is suggested in scenes featuring the PM and his Spin Doctor daughter Anthea/Athena — who are tracking Smith’s ‘real’ passage home — that his actions throughout Europe bear some resemblance to the adventures of Odysseus, the particulars of Smith’s journey are never made clear. The sense of metaphor and parallel is lost, and Smith’s storyline ends up being completely substituted; vaguely implied rather than actually told. The result of this is a curious emotional detachment from Smith, the undeniable focal point of the plot, meaning that the denouement is at best underwhelming and at worst completely irrelevant.

Given the talent attached to this production, in particular Simon Armitage, I can’t help but feel that a point may have missed somewhere, some vital piece of the jigsaw that would pull Armitage’s disjointed story together with the quality of the production. It is a common principle within theatre, however, that if the audience has failed to understand, then the responsibility lies not with the viewer, but with the creators. It must be said that the overall feeling upon leaving this production was of being just as lost as poor Odysseus himself.

Jack Roe

The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead has been co-produced with English Touring Theatre and a UK tour follows the run at the Everyman theatre, Liverpool. See it there until Sat 17 October 2015 (£12-22)

Then at Richmond Theatre, London (20-24 Oct 2015); Theatre Royal Brighton (27-31 Oct 2015); Shakespeare’s Globe, London (3-14 Nov 2015); Cambridge Arts Theatre (17-21 Nov 2015); and Northcott Theatre, Exeter (24-28 Nov 2015)

All images © Gary Calton

Posted on 13/10/2015 by thedoublenegative