The Guide Theatre Review: The Odyssey, Missing Assumed Dead
Modern retellings of classic literature is nothing new. Often they are a roaring success but occasionally they can seem trite and even tarnish the original text. But if anyone can work a 21st century narrative into the classic Greek myth of Odysseus, it is Simon Armitage. The returning playwright (as well as poet, broadcaster and novelist) has territory of Troy, the Gods, and the universe they inhabit is familiar to the Yorkshireman and he has won many plaudits covering the works in various ways in the past.
In this production, we follow the misfortunes of politician Smith who very soon gets himself into trouble at a football match in Turkey weeks before an election. As his party and his family struggle to get any information on his whereabouts, Smith is cast onto the oceans of a mythical world where he encounters monsters, sirens and duplicitous gods.
It’s an ambitious premise, made all the more difficult by the subplots of political manoeuvre, family friction and media manipulation. But under the assured direction of Nick Bagnall, never does the narrative meander or get lost, unlike Odysseus and his band of brothers. Simon Dutton’s Prime Minister ably keeps up the tempo and humour with his sweary portrayal bringing shades of The Thick Of It to the play as he negotiates the media with the help of his daughter and assistant played by Polly Frame. There’s even an appropriately lewd reference to Pig-gate which brings the story bang up to date.
Parallel to the media meltdown happening on British soil – a girl getting glassed, allegedly by a politician makes for the perfect storm – Smith and his fellow football fans become ancient warriors looking to return home to Ithaca. There’s high drama, which only threatens to get melodramatic when one of Odysseus’s comrades cuts him down with a timely witticism.
The introduction of Cyclops brings a touch of Monty Python to proceedings while adding to the spectacle of what is otherwise a simple yet effective set. James Fortune’s musical arrangement is perfect at bringing tension to proceedings and giving the production an edgy dimension perfectly befitting the script.
The parallels in the two narratives become more and more apparent as the play comes to a close and the numerous themes dealt with come to the fore. The inclusion of a short swipe at UKIP seems a little tokenistic but then it is difficult to pass on the opportunity to have a go at the Farage faction. And while the quantity of underlying themes does become a bit unwieldy this can be forgiven for the sheer entertainment the preceding story has given us.
Mocking the North-South divide and the right wing media together with a touch of football will always go down well in this part of the world but The Odyssey is much more than box ticking or crowd pleasing. It is an engaging reminder of what is important in life as well as good humoured, thought-provoking fun.