Simon Armitage’s much anticipated reworking of the epic poem The Odyssey was one of the best performances I have seen in a long time. Partly due to the talent of ETT’s actors, but mostly, I believe, because of the political relevance that was interwoven with the plotline. The play, in which cabinet minister Smith is sent to Turkey, missing his son’s 18th birthday, to do some PR for the upcoming General Election gets involved in a street brawl. Then, he has no choice but to find his own way home. With some parts set in England, some in Turkey, and some in the ‘other’ world of Odysseus’s voyage, the triadic setting felt almost falsified and rigid. This fitted the political themes perfectly: upholding reputations, sharp unforgiving steps being taken to maintain order, and a tension between nepotism, intellect, and how far
privilege can aid your efforts to reach the top of the government’s triangular power structure.
Armitage’s play heavily satirises the Conservative politician. A powerful scene illustrated this, when Smith’s son confronted the Prime Minister in the Gentleman’s Club. It showed the chasm between the everyday man and the governmental man brilliantly. Also, the typical ‘English yob’ was portrayed. Chanting loud, vulgar and racist phrases and disrespecting a different culture, I could not help but cringe. The ignorance of a few is an unpleasant and dangerous burden we all have to bear.
Despite the apparent doom and gloom, the play was actually hilarious at points. As an informed audience member, (to really enjoy a reworking of any literature, you probably need to have read it) I appreciated the clever and comical play on names throughout. Anthea, the Prime Minister’s daughter and right hand woman, became Athena in the context of Odysseus’ journey. The ‘Nobody is my name’ joke was played out brilliantly by Odysseus when he was facing Cyclops (Odysseus confuses the hungry Cyclops by naming himself “Nobody” and leaves Cyclops ridiculed, when he accuses “Nobody” of attacking him). The celebratory song (one of many) performed by Odysseus’ crew contrasted the cunning and subtle trick perfectly.
The timelessness of The Odyssey’s themes and political setting was reflected beautifully in the minimalism of the set. A particularly clever motif was the repetition of the construction and deconstruction of Odysseus’s boat on the stage. Not only was this the work of an excellent stage designer and engineer, it also reflected how we keep on creating the same political and social situations, expecting the outcome to differ. Although this particular symbolism may feel a little forced, that was part of the nature of the play. Amongst the incredibly intelligent links between the original story of The Odyssey and its modern day setting, it has to be said there were some that occasionally felt quite forced. However the play often comically alluded to this fact, once stating “that one’s a little stretched” in reference to the Prime Minister playing the role of Zeus, making what could feel awkward another inside joke.
It would not be a stretch to say that this play was somewhat of a modern masterpiece, both in production and in themes, make sure you see it!
Hanna Chorbachi and Rowan Keith