THEATRE / Subterranean homesick blues: The Odyssey - The Other Place, Stratford- upon-Avon; The Winter's Tale - Royal Shakespeare Theatre; All's Well that Ends Well - Swan

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WITH THE opening of two Shakespearean comedies of reconciliation and the return to Stratford of Peter Hall and John Nettles after their exiled wanderings among the sirens and one-eyed monsters of the West End and television, the RSC has just completed a week of reunions: capped with the archetype of all homecoming stories in Derek Walcott's version of Homer's Odyssey.

How the author of the 325-page Graeco-Caribbean poem Omeros can have found the heart to start all over again is a mystery only he could explain. But at least the play - a direct Homeric adaptation taking passing advantage of the poem's Caribbean insights - is a lesser task. The most obvious problem is that of opening up the retrospective epic into a linear present tense: which Walcott achieves with a blues-singer narrator (Rudolph Walker), and by targeting his opening on the two parallel scenes of Odysseus's departure from Troy and Telemachus's flight from Ithaca. It is then a straight run through the ordeals of the voyage to the bloody homecoming.

It has yielded a thrilling spectacle in Gregory Doran's production; and one that is thoroughly Homeric in its blend of fantasy and ordinary life. The marital bickering of Helen and Menelaus fades into the combat with the Old Man of the Sea: Odysseus's dead shipmates struggle up through the sand and steer him past the sirens - at which moment, Ilona Sekacz's music is stifled, and you are left to imagine its intolerable beauty from the roped Odysseus' silent screams. Circe's isle gets the full Caribbean treatment, from carnival calypsos to a Shango possession ritual which takes the hero down to the Underworld - visualised by Walcott as an underground railway, signalled with the thunderous clatter of trains, where the shades of Achilles and Odysseus' mother appear on platforms as unapproachable as the far bank of the Styx. As he puts it in Omeros, 'the myth widened its rings every century'.

It has widened in more than decorative detail. Even as an adapter, Walcott remains a poet forging new meaning out of the past. But here his achievement is less secure. Cyclops, modernised as an Ubuesque potentate in steel helmet with a built-in monocle, is a treat as played by the obscenely padded Geoffrey Freshwater, cackling through the cannibal feast with his entertaining visitor ('You're a killer, Nobody'). Come the suitors' massacre, though, and we find Penelope (Amanda Harris) rounding on the hero and accusing him of bringing Troy to Ithaca. 'Odysseus?' she says: 'An odd Zeus] Throw this beggar out of my house.' You can just about swallow this un-Homeric gear change. But, having made it, Walcott then reverts to the original recognition scene (the bed test), after which all Penelope's pacifist scruples melt away in her spouse's embrace. Even Ron Cook's Odysseus, whose craft, wit, and homesick passion have carried him intrepidly through the show, is defeated by this scene. As also by the suggestion that the opponents he had met on his wanderings were homeland phantoms. 'Monsters? We make them ourselves.'

This, I submit, is not a useful way of looking at The Odyssey, and Walcott's plotting does not support it. As after other Walcott productions, one is left with the suspicion that this learned, allusive poet, with his unmatched command of impacted metaphor, sacrifices his best gifts when he turns to the theatre.

Adrian Noble's production of The Winter's Tale opens with the sight of the solitary Mamillius looking upstage towards a party tableau; it closes with the statuesque Hermione in the same position. And throughout the show, other figures are scenically cut off, so as to highlight their status as victims, outcasts, or (like the sleepless Leontes) transgressors of the human bond.

The separation and reunion of the story and the moral emphasis of the production are both encoded in Anthony Ward's set - a landscape cyclorama encircling a central gauze box. It is a design that encompasses every scenic requirement and gathers meaning with every scenic change - from the early moment where the box lifts and the party freezes to the sound of the boy's humming top, to its descent as Apollo's storm scatters the company and its final appearance as the last barrier between the severed partners.

The production may have nothing new to say about the play, but it stretches the internal contrast between Sicily and Bohemia well beyond the usual limit. And, once again, largely through integrated imagery. To audiences of The Thebans, Noble is known as the inventor of the tragic balloon; balloons make a big comeback in this show as unearthly playthings which can reflect the wrath of Apollo, drift on carrying Time's message, and hold Autolycus (Richard McCabe) in mid-air before he comes down to earth and does conjuring tricks with them. Goosing his partners through a rustic karaoke and executing a particularly cunning theft in the moment of his promised reform, McCabe is the star turn of the liveliest Bohemian party I can remember: icily followed by a return to the grey light of Sicily and the desolate Leontes against a blank horizon.

Superb rhetoric is the continuous merit of John Nettles's Leontes - vowels prolonged into cries of passion, angry new rhythms surging through the lines, a voice that abruptly dries into age. But, in the tragic first half, he seems not fully to have considered who Leontes is (a tyrant or a possessed victim?); and the flinty attack of his RSC work in the 1970s is precisely what it lacks now. As a penitent thawing into ecstatic confession and half- mischievously putting things right, he is on top of the part. There is a good Hermione by Samantha Bond, and a lovely Paulina from the smilingly implacable Gemma Jones.

It is a leap from this externally inventive production to Peter Hall's treatment of All's Well that Ends Well where nothing comes between the spectator and the word. As it has been the habit of recent directors to pass off this unloved comedy with scenic counter-attractions, the text remains relatively unfamiliar; and Hall's company - from Barbara Jefford's fiercely maternal Countess down to the gossipy Florentine neighbours - deliver it with an exemplary clarity that reveal some piercing character insights no less than its grave beauty.

One beneficiary is the braggart clown, Parolles, who emerges from Michael Siberry's brass-lunged performance as Shakespeare's one and only study of a fool who knows himself. When he is caught out, Hall does nothing to soften the mock interrogation into comedy. It is a lacerating experience; but the sight of Parolles's emergence, the same man in rags that he was in Captain's uniform, is its reward. Likewise Sophie Thompson's deglamorised Helena, a pious dreamer and very much a poor relation in the Rossillion household, who precisely articulates her every move in pursuit of Bertram without inviting sympathy. Given that context, I do not see why Bertram (Toby Stephens) should still be played as a snobbish, mean-spirited brat simply for resisting marriage to a girl he happened not to fancy. This is a play about false judgments, and the production needs to be clearer on who are the judges and who are the victims.