Homer’s Odyssey is one of the world’s great epics and Mark Bruce is certainly ambitious in presenting a danced version of it in just over two hours with modest resources and a cast of eleven. He packs in a tremendous amount of detail, via a series of fluid and vivid scenes switching between Odysseus’s encounters both amorous and violent on his voyage and the suffering of his wife Penelope, beset by strife as she waits for him at home. The action, though it involves swords and sailing ships, ranges across time periods (and a wildly eclectic soundtrack). However for Bruce the themes remain universal. The brutalising effects of war in all ages, not just on those who fight but on their families too, are keenly felt, and ultimately the corrosive effects of violence means that although Odysseus is reunited at last with his wife, the pair are too damaged for a happy ending.
In Bruce’s version, the gods who casually play with Odysseus’s destiny are named Immortal Man and Immortal Woman. They are arbitrary figures who play casually with Odysseus’s destiny for their amusement, sometimes persecuting him, sometimes dragging him from the waves of a shipwreck for another testing encounter. Christopher Akrill, replacing an injured Jonathan Goddard, takes on the role of Immortal Man. He is introduced to us in the first scene surrounded by a corps dressed as skeletons, showing off his tattoos, preening, sardonic, flirting with the audience, conspiratorial. He knows what is to come and is a shape-shifting presence throughout.
Bruce provides some back story for his characters. We see Odysseus and Penelope lovingly together with their baby son before the summons comes to the Trojan War. This helps to underline Penelope’s grief at his departure, which is unnervingly manifested here by Immortal Woman marking slashes on her back to count the passing years while her husband is away. Hannah Kidd is Penelope, threatened but never dominated, always a strong presence, fierce and unrelenting.
It is striking just how many Homeric episodes and references Bruce has managed to include, though their form may look gritty and grimy rather than heroic, or even tongue in cheek. Christopher Tandy is the wandering Odysseus, a brooding figure always quick to reach for his sword, resilient but increasingly brutal. He has an amorous dalliance with Calypso in a floor based entwining duet with Grace Jabbari that shows a softer side. But this is ruthlessly cut short and she and their child coolly abandoned. He encounters the sorceress Circe, Immortal Woman again, a capricious Eleanor Duval, who turns his men into pigs (masks by Jonny Dixon). He is lashed to the mast to hear the sirens sing, while his men row on. It’s all packed with action, with no chance to pause and reflect, but some of those scenes are downright odd and at the edge of silliness. The oddest but decidedly memorable encounter is with the one–eyed Cyclops who appears here dressed as a seedy and sinister Father Christmas (Akrill again) to the strains of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
That particular moment has the women (Santa’s assistants) dancing as if in a West End show. The dance language is varied. Bruce is very fond of the floor and most of his duets have the protagonists rolling and slithering across it. Akrill gets the lightest, airiest quasi balletic language as if to mark him out from the earthbound mortals, though there isn’t much space for jumping in the intimate setting of Wilton’s.
Scenes cut rapidly between Odysseus and events back at Ithaca where his son Telemachus is growing up and his mother is beset by suitors keen to inherit the kingdom. Telemachus gets led astray at what looks like an energetic seventies disco. There at the back, playing air guitar, is the ever present Akrill as Immortal Man manipulating events.
You could watch this production in different ways. You can keep looking for the references back to the original epic and wonder at, or try to keep track of, how many details have been carefully stitched in. (I particularly liked the use of swathes of burgundy silk to represent the waves of Homer’s wine-dark sea). Or you could just forget the original, keep in the moment and concentrate on what is before you in terms of some compelling performances and tightly crafted choreography underpinning even the daffiest moments. The pressure of events doesn’t let up and by the interval you might feel punch-drunk with it all.
The setting ranges across time periods. The costume design by Dorothee Brodrück gives us swords under leather jackets, any amount of tattoos, suits, cloaks and little shift dresses. The set design is by the inventive Phil Eddolls who achieves much with limited means. There is a high circular structure which can form a vantage point for the Immortals to climb up and observe events or can split apart and become the Trojan horse or, most brilliantly, a ship on storm tossed seas. Wilton’s Music Hall is narrow but high and this exploits every scrap of space available. Lighting design is by Guy Hoare who gives us smoky atmospherics and a line of footlights in a nod to Wilton’s past. He manages to invoke Odysseus home of Ithaca purely by some lights glinting on the backdrop.
Mark Bruce has composed some of the soundtrack himself, but his other musical choices range far and wide, from Tom Waits, Sonic Youth and Mark Lanegan to Liszt and Mozart. On paper it sounds odd but in the theatre it supports his vision of a story that crosses time. The company of eleven work their socks off playing multiple roles and shifting the set. Alan Vincent is a particularly menacing suitor.
The ending is a predictably bloody one in a production which has a very high body count. Odysseus returns and kills the suitors, but we also see him then quite casually murder one of Penelope’s maids who betrayed a confidence. For him it’s just another killing. But at the conclusion Hannah Kidd’s Penelope is not disposed to forget or forgive anything. Too much damage has been inflicted on them both.
This is a bold project, crammed with incident and detail, and highly atmospheric. Three years ago Mark Bruce scored a huge hit with a similarly off beat and eclectic Dracula. This production is more frenetic and clotted with detail and doesn’t quite reach the same exalted heights but is still an engrossing and overwhelming evening in the theatre. Compelling performances from the leading players and images of stormy seas and shipwreck will linger in the memory, and the crumbling intimacy of Wilton’s Music Hall adds a special magic.