EPIC / Keeping the drama shipshape

'I FEEL as if I've got a chihuahua lead and I'm running up this huge monster, this jabberwocky, and trying to pull it through a small door,' says Greg Doran, director of The Odyssey, which opens tonight at the Other Place, the RSC's smallest, roughest space.

The monster has been a year in the making, and though it marks Doran's directing debut for the RSC he's a familiar face to audiences. After acting and directing for his own company and at the Nottingham Playhouse, Doran washed up in Stratford for the 1987/88 season to play Octavius in Julius Caesar and hefty roles in the rest of the rep. The following year, when he was half-way through his apprenticeship as an assistant director, Adrian Noble called him in and asked him what, given carte blanche, he would like to direct. Homer's Odyssey, he replied. 'I've always wanted to. It's a wonderful, epic story, the components of which we all know about - the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis are familiar journalistic headlines - and just last year out of my Christmas cracker fell the riddle 'Why did the Cyclops give up teaching? Because he only had one pupil' - but the context has gone. I wanted to reclaim those great characters and situations.' Anyway, Noble laughed and said what else, and just as Doran thought that was it, packed him off to find a writer for the job.

Having read Derek Walcott's earlier invocation of Homer, Menelaus, Doran instantly thought of him. Then he heard about Walcott's prize-winning epic, Omeros, in which the poet takes Homer to his native St Lucia, and his heart sank, certain that Walcott would refuse the commission on the grounds of cultural opportunism. 'I wanted Derek to do it because his poetry is pervaded with the sense of the sea. It has an almost tidal rhythm to it. I loved the fact, too, that he came from an exotic island. While I was thinking about the project I read Keats's poem, 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer', where he says that Chapman 'spoke out loud and bold' and that is what you get from Walcott. There's an image in Homer when Odysseus is thrown against a rock, the wave pulls him back and he loses all the skin off his hand and he says, you know when you hunt for octopus and you plunge your hand into the cave to pull it out, the octopus has all this shingle on its suckers, well, that was what it was like for Odysseus. No one could write like that unless he'd fished for octopus. There's that same genuine voice in Derek's work. And there is a coincidence, too, between Derek's sense of exile and Odysseus' - after all, The Odyssey is the first great song of the return of the wanderer.'

Fortunately, the thought of being labelled the Homer-man of the Nineties didn't deter Walcott and he promptly set to work, writing sketches of key moments, such as the transposition of the Underworld to the Underground, and the portrait of the Cyclops as an obscenely fat and monstrous tyrant. A fortnight of intensive workshops with a few RSC actors quickly produced another 100 pages. And when Doran went over to St Lucia to continue work, Walcott handed him a fat script which began with the dedication 'For Greg' - proof, surely, of a relationship of mutual admiration? 'When I thanked him, he teased that he'd only done it so I'd do the play the way he wanted.'

Together they arrived at a flexible hexameter line and unintrusive rhyme scheme on which to hang this piece of collaborative story-telling. The tangy, invigorating use of language is vintage Walcott, but Doran's contribution to the play has been significant too. 'I've been a sort of editor. You understand the tangents of Omeros as soon as you experience the pace of life in the Caribbean - you can endlessly chatter and digress and that is precious and it's probably Greek too - but what I've done is to shape this sprawling epic into three hours' traffic upon the stage.'

Walcott has compared Doran's production to a ship. 'He said that we must hang on to the poetry, what he calls the 'chuckling consonants' and not let them slip between the planks. And he's right. It's a 12-beat line and if the actors stray off that, the heartbeat goes. Ensemble playing is essential - the play is pretty much single-line distribution, you rely on someone else for your cue. If one person lies back or loses faith, then you've had it.' A week before launch, however, the helmsman had confidence in both crew and vessel. 'A great poet has put on the mantle of story-teller and is telling the story in his own terms with references to his own culture without gimmicks or attempting to foist parallels. I passionately believe that if we'd done a sort of chitons and kothornoi production with masks, Homer would have hated it, but I believe we're recreating The Odyssey entirely in keeping with Homer's spirit.'

'The Odyssey' opens at Stratford tonight (0789 295623)

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