Can the Odyssey, that 12,000 line epic poem, be successfully translated onto stage without being over long and overly arduous? Judging from Handcart Ensemble's production of Simon Armitage's adaptation, the answer is yes. Homer's Odyssey trims and alters certain bits of the story. What unfolds onstage is then an old, familiar story that nonetheless remains fresh, exciting, and thoroughly engaging. After winning the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men set off to return home to Ithaca. However, they soon find themselves lost at sea and float from strange land to strange land. They run into trouble on the Island of the Cyclops, where they are trapped in the cave of Polyphemus the Cyclops and are at risk of becoming his dinner. Odysseus tricks Polyphemus by getting him drunk, telling him that his name is “Nobody” and then blinding him so that Odysseus and his men can escape. Unfortunately for Odysseus, Polyphemus is Poseidon's son, and Odysseus and his men need to sail on the ocean in order to get home. Odysseus' men bring further strife upon themselves by later eating the sacred cattle of the sun god. Eventually, only Odysseus is left, and he winds up staying on an island with the goddess Calypso, who has fallen in love with him.
Meanwhile, on Ithaca, his wife, Penelope, and now grown son, Telemachus, must deal with the presence of greedy boorish suitors. Since Odysseus has not been formally buried, Penelope cannot agree to marry one of them. Because of guest/host rules in Ancient Greece, she cannot turn them out either. The suitors grow restless and plot to kill Telemachus, who has, on the advice of Athena-in-disguise, sailed to Sparta.
Armitage's adaptation uses beautiful, evocative language. The eye-gouging of Polyphemus occurs mostly off-stage, yet Odysseus' description of his plan is graphic enough to make one feel a little queasy. It is aurally gory and does not need the addition of spurting blood so common in shows today to get its point across.
However, the production is visually thrilling in other ways. Puppets are used quite effectively. Polyphemus is first shown as a giant shadow puppet. When he finally stomps onstage, he is a terrible sight to behold: a puppet on stilts with a large papier-mâché head. Additionally, the ensemble has a great sense of physicality. They bob and weave in fight scenes, embody the waves while out at sea, and tumble over each other.
The acting is, for the most part, spot on. David D'Agonstini brings just the right level of command and strength to the character of Odysseus while Rachael McOwen is bright-eyed as Nausicaä. However, there is doubling and tripling of roles in the show, and some actors felt stiff and flat in some of their roles, as if they were unaccustomed to their characters still.
Homer's Odyssey, with a runtime of over two and a half hours, is not a brief show. However, every minute of it is a joy to watch. The language is fresh and engaging, and the theatrics make the show a treat for the eyes. Homer's Odyssey breathes fresh life into an old tale.