Review: The Odyssey, Derby Theatre

“Where shall we start?”

Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey is a cornerstone of Western literature and so unsurprisingly has endured and thrived as part of our cultural consciousness since the 8th century BC when it was composed. So its tale of soldier Odysseus’ 20 year absence from his home in Ithica due to the 10 years of the Trojan War and then a troublesome 10 year journey back feels an appropriate fit in the centenary year of the Great War, especially given Mike Kenny’s new version and Sarah Brigham’s inspired direction.

For this interpretation digs deep into both the psychological and practical effects of war. The first half asks searching questions about the nature of telling war stories, Odysseus’ recounting of his trials become a meditation on survivor guilt as he revisits decisions made in the heat of combat, the sacrifices he asked of his men, struggling to rationalise the huge losses incurred. And part two turns its view on those left behind and the difficulties they have to face in welcoming back someone who has been unutterably changed by their experiences. 

The atrocities of wartime are timeless and Brigham’s production reflects this. Kenny’s writing puts a contemporary take on the language but maintains the device of the Greek Chorus to spin its tales, costumes hint respectfully at the early twentieth century but there’s nothing heavy-handed about the treatment. Rather there’s just an aching sadness at the damage done to so many in times of conflict, the cracks radiating out far beyond just those directly involved and suggesting why preventing matters from descending into a never-ending cycle of violence is so damn difficult.

The weightiness of the concept is excellently borne here though, resulting in a thrilling piece of theatre. The first half is just fantastic – the simplicity of Barney George’s design allows an inventive sense of play to shine through with head-biting Cyclops, whirlpools, flocks of sheep and herds of pigs easily but strikingly evoked. And Ivan Stott’s sound design and compositions, assisted by his own live violin playing, form a beautiful aural backdrop, none more so than in the haunting call of the siren song.

The second half lacks a little of the excitement as it plays out more traditionally but what it loses in invention it gains in intensity. Wole Sawyerr’s Odysseus struggling to deal with the return home he thought would never come, Emma Beattie’s Penelope scarcely believing her husband is back yet barely recognising the man he become, the brutality now part of their lives exemplified by the horrific fate of one of her maids, one of the most hauntingly effective pieces of stage violence I’ve ever seen.

So The Odyssey comes highly recommended, Derby Theatre may not necessarily be on many people’s radar but with work of this quality being produced in-house, it surely won’t remain so for too long. This was my first trip here (and to Derby overall) but I’ll certainly be looking over what is in store in the coming months. Oh, and the Victoria sponge from the café is highly recommended.

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Photo: Robert Day
Booking until 1st March

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