Review: The Odyssey – The Underworld, National Theatre

The fifth anniversary of the National Theatre’s Public Acts programme is celebrated in glorious style with the open-hearted The Odyssey: The Underworld

“Not everyone gets the chance for such glory”

I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in a theatre than I was whilst watching more than 200 bodies flood the stage of the Olivier for the community theatre-based production of Pericles back in 2018. The first instalment of the National Theatre’s Public Acts programme, a nationwide initiative to create extraordinary acts of theatre and community, my heart filled at the living embodiment of a national theatre being just that – national, but ambitious and inclusive too. It is truly one of my happiest theatre memories.

Ever-adventurous, the programme has continued since then and in 2023, has presented a five-part version of The Odyssey, playing in Stoke-on-Trent, Doncaster, Trowbridge and Sunderland and now culminating at the National Theatre with The Odyssey: The Underworld. And once again, it utterly captivated me with its generosity of spirit and its commitment to finding the epic in community engagement, expanding the notion of what excellent theatre can be rather than sticking with stuffier ideas of what is ‘good’.

Chris Bush adapts Homer freely but astutely, constantly drip-feeding us back-story to keep us at par, adding in flourishes of her own but also able to pull back to allow the many set-pieces to come together and soar from the stage. From Odysseus’ captivity by Calypso, through sea battles with Poseidon and journeys through the Underworld with Hades, plus side trips to Ithaca and and Mount Olympus, Emily Lim’s production never misses an opportunity to maximise the use of her considerable ensemble, made up of community performers from all of the Public Acts partners.

So whilst the cast is led by 6 professionals (Amy Booth-Steel’s lovesick Calypso, Tarinn Callender’s tenderly affecting Telemachus, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s powerful Poseidon, Emma Prendergast’s superbly steadying Athena, Zubin Varla’s thoroughly creepy Hades and Sharon Duncan-Brewster as an extraordinary Odysseus), the limelight is truly shared. Performance groups The London Bodhrán Band, Haringey Vox Choir, Impact Dance Group, and South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus all get moments to shine and Dan Canham’s movement work provides several moments of visual splendour.

Jim Fortune’s score tends to the bombastic but with this many voices to play with, it works wonderfully, repeated refrains working their way through the show and MD Tarek Merchant keeping his band. And Fly Davis’ costumery is fantastic, especially in the outré surroundings of Mount Olympus, Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey’s set design consistently inventive. A national theatre can, and should, be many things to many people. And whilst some may crave state of the nation plays by David Hare ad nauseam, others delight in getting to shake streamers, cèilidh dance in their seats and celebrate that special power that theatre can have to truly unite. What a joy that the National Theatre can provide both.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
The Odyssey – The Underworld is booking at the National Theatre until 28th August

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