I was lucky enough to win a free ticket for the first performance of The Odyssey (#odysseyoxford), a joint production between Creation Theatre (@CreationTheatre) and The Factory (@_factory) performed in Blackwell’s (@BlackwellOxford) Norrington Room on Thursday 29 March. Billed as a ‘world première’ I think it was more a preview for the cast to try out their ideas on a live audience. There is no script for this version of The Odyssey: it is not so much a play in the traditional sense, more a piece of dramatic story-telling.
Let me first say a little about the venue and the production. In case you don’t know it the Norrington Room is the impressively large basement of Blackwell’s bookshop in Broad Street. It descends in tiers of bookcases and walkways from the entrance area which is itself at basement level. A square stage has been built in the lowest well, putting the actors on a level with the front row chairs placed on all sides of the square at the next level up. More seating is in the book-lined alcoves behind and on the higher walkways. I reckoned about 100 people could be seated with more standing in the main floor area. This was theatre in the square rather than in the round. With no theatre equipment and only minimal theatrical lighting, the cast, dressed in modern casual clothes, made full use of the stage. Neighbouring bookcases doubled as the wings and ancillary stages, with the main stage only a leap away!
The Odyssey is a story or stories passed down orally for centuries before written versions appeared. Current editions present the story in 24 chapters or ‘books’. Director Tim Carroll wanted to capture and exploit the spontaneity and variation that would have occurred in the early re-telling of the stories by itinerant bards. I don’t want to give any spoilers so I’ll just say that each book is presented as a separate scene, and each scene is in a different format which varies from performance to performance.
Taken as a whole the production was good entertainment. It was lively, imaginative, energetic and despite its length (over 2½ hours with one interval) never dull. The built-in unpredictability in the format meant the audience – and probably the cast – were never quite sure how each scene would work out. I was particularly impressed by the cast’s use of their props: they only had two each, a wooden staff and a hoop, but these combined to make ships, weapons, rafts, furniture and even the gates of Hades. There was no stage scenery.
However, to create different formats for all 24 scenes is asking a lot. Some, like a scene performed in complete darkness, worked very well and were theatrical in the true sense. Equally a soliloquy by the cyclops Polyphemus was moving and compelling. But other variations were less successful and I felt that a few of the more dramatic scenes suffered from being constrained into inappropriate formats. Each performance will be different of course: even the actors take different parts between scenes and on different nights so sometimes it will work better than others. But if the idea of a preview is to fine tune the production my one comment would be to fix the formats for the most significant or dramatic scenes and let the variations add to the spontaneity of the others.
Stories like The Odyssey were originally told as entertainment so it’s appropriate for The Factory to bring humour in to the tale. Turning people into pigs is funny! Occasionally comedy veered towards farce but the cast wisely avoided crossing that particular line. There was singing too, unaccompanied, unamplified (as far as I could tell) and beautifully done.
So go and see it. It’s different. It’s entertaining. And it’s a good story.