HELEN of Troy is cheesed off - a bored femme fatale back now with her husband; a legend in 'her heyday's afternoon'. So she's not overly sympathetic when she's told that Odysseus has spent the 10 years since the War ended in a fruitless search for home. 'Well, at least he's travelling,' she pouts petulantly. Spending five minutes as one of his crew would be sufficient to shatter her quaint equation of travel with pleasure cruise.
At the start of Derek Walcott's splendid stage version of The Odyssey, there's the sound of crashing surf and the vision, briefly illumined behind the stretched dishcloth-sail, of faithful Penelope (Amanda Harris) far away in Ithaca, weaving the shroud that she unstitches each night as a delaying tactic against her suitors. The shuttle of his wife's loom - the shuttle of the tides on which Odysseus drifts. The sea and the idea of home haunt this adaptation with an especially piercing keenness ('Home] The word flails like a gull over wide water'), suggesting that the pains of exile are an experience the Nobel Laureate adaptor knows from the inside.
Directed with flair and resourcefulness by Greg Doran, this studio- sized Odyssey tries to do so many things at once, you have to laugh at the cheek with which it just about gets away with it. Set in a region that seems to conflate the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, it feels universalised beyond period or place. Its stand-in for Homer is an odd hybrid of a Greek bard and a modern, blind, black blues singer / beggar (Rudolph Walker). Offering a powerful introduction to this ancient myth of man's power of survival, the stage-treatment is also wittily self-knowing.
In that it boasts a protagonist who principally relies on his ingenuity and wits, the Homeric original was already shifting from the Iliad's valour-centred conception of heroism. With a nod to Joyce's Ulysses, Walcott's version takes that process further - as is evident at the start when all the big-name Greeks, gathered for Achilles's funeral, are kept waiting by Ron Cook's excellent Odysseus. Pint-sized, cheeky, provokingly unfussed, he ambles in with his bag, looking more like a dodgy plumber than a warrior. 'Sorry I'm late,' he says. Late? It's going to be the story of his life.
The hero's ordeals with the monsters are staged in a way that arrestingly blends humour and horror. My five-year-old assistant was particularly taken with the Cyclops, played by Geoffrey Freshwater as a bloated, flattery-fooled grotesque, with a triple-figure waist measurement, a single figure IQ and an Anglepoise magnifying lens (for his one eye) which sprouts out of his tin helmet. A cannibal with the table manners of a two-year-old, he is determined to wipe out thought, so when he discovers he is eating a bit of philosopher, he belches it back in order to squeeze the meat of juice between sadistic thumb and forefinger.
As a disguised Odysseus nears his goal, his mind is prey here to weird moments of deja vu. To the outraged eyes of Penelope (not yet aware that the stranger is her husband), the past also seems to be recycled when Odysseus, in a thrillingly staged sequence, kills all the suitors with bow and arrows. She castigates him for causing a second bloody Troy in her home. This modern attitude strikes the play's one false note. The other internal echoes have real reverberative depth: the haunting fact, say, that Penelope's loom is formed from the mast and ropes of her husband's ship.
Continues at the Pit (Box office: 071-638 8891).
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