Alison's Festival Diary #3
The Odyssey by Tom Wright, directed by Michael Kantor, designed by Anna Tregloan. With Paul Blackwell, Leon Ewing, Francis Greenslade, Jessica Ipkendanz, Rita Kalnejais, Benjamin Lewis, Belinda McClory, Suzannah McDonald, Kris McQuade, Margaret Mills and Stephen Phillips. Malthouse Theatre at the Workshop.
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy...
So begins (in Robert Fagle's translation) one of the formative texts of Western civilisation, The Odyssey: the tale of Odysseus' long return home from war. At least 2700 years old, Homer's epic has inspired countless translations and retellings. The word "odyssey", which in its Greek root simply means "the story of Odysseus", is part of our language.
The Malthouse's production of this epic is an unashamedly ambitious undertaking. There should be much to like about it - the music, composed by Iain Grandage, is thrillingly theatrical, David Franzke's industrial sound design deeply textured, the mise en scene often arresting, the cast various and talented. But at its heart is a text of such unremitting banality that it compromises all these efforts. It is The Odyssey for Hi-5.
It certainly looks spectacular. Anna Tregloan's extraordinary set dominates the huge workshop space - a semi-circular rusty edifice like the wreck of some arcane and ancient piece of machinery. It is punctuated by doors on two levels, the top ones reached by iron ladders. In the central space is a revolve, turned by the actors, that can be flooded with water. A huge iron central door can be drawn up and closed with a metallic clang.
The highlight of the show is the appearance of the Sirens. Odysseus (Stephen Phillips) is suspended mid-air, lashed to an imaginary mast; the iron door opens to a song of unearthly beauty accompanied live on a violin, and the Sirens enter, dressed as veiled brides, while Odysseus writhes in frenzied desire. It's a wordless scene of dramatic and poetic beauty that makes you sigh for missed opportunity. Likewise, for Odysseus' visit to the Underworld, where he talks to the dead, a vast curtain of black netting covered with tickets - presumably the names of the dead - falls and divides the audience from the stage. A ragged grey screen bisects the revolve, and the dead appear lit by a naked flame in a bowl, pathetic in their nudity, to tell Odysseus their sad stories. A misjudgement of timing means this scene continues for too long, diminishing its power, but there's no denying its visual efficacy.
Ironically, one problem with this production is in fact the set - it dominates the space so much that all action is forced to be subordinate to its demands. But the real problem lies with the text. It is an unimaginative retelling of Odysseus' journey - compare it, say, with what the Coen Brothers did with the story in O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Kazantzakis' The Odyssey, where Odysseus returns home only to leave again. It gestures towards a crudely Jungian idea of the feminine that is startling for its misogyny, but otherwise all the imagination exists in the visual details of Michael Kantor's production, which sets the action after World War 2.
The language of the original epic, writes the classicist Bernard Knox, was at once heightened and popular, a difficult language that existed only in epic poetry but nevertheless lived on the tongues of ordinary Greeks. Homer's words "maintained their hold on the tongues and the imagination of the Greeks by their superb literary quality - the simplicity, speed and directness of the narrative technique, the brilliance and excitement of the action, the greatness and imposing humanity of the characters".
There is no sense that these qualities are carried over into Tom Wright's text. But more crucially, there is a puzzling absence in his language, evident in his earlier work but particularly highlighted here, perhaps because of the challenge of the original. Writers are people who respond to the materiality of language, its sensuous, sonic and dynamic qualities. This is especially true of poetry composed in an oral culture, and of writing for theatre, which is a place where language is physicalised and made gestic. This sensuous response to language is by no means a quality at odds with intelligence, but is embedded deeply within its turnings: even the most abstract thought has an erotic dynamic, the "wooing of a meaning" which is "inseparable from its absence" (Anne Carson).
When Wright reaches for the poetic, the language is almost completely emptied of this sensuous resonance. Repetition - a subtle and complex poetic art - becomes mind-numbing, and simplicity mere simple-mindedness. Epic grandeur is denoted by archaic grammatical reversals, like those in bad fantasy novels - "all corners of the earth have I seen". And so on.
The cliches and bathetic homilies roll out mercilessly. About half an hour in, disbelievingly, I started to write down some of the lines. "It's death," intones one unfortunate actor (I didn't note which one) "that makes life so important." "Your story is written on the breeze," says another. And another: "All around us History is marching!" Odysseus informs us nonsensically at one point that "I"m running out of time to fulfil my fate!" And the lesson we are to take away: "Life - life - that is it - that is all - ...Life! - fight for it!" So much for the rich simplicity of Homer.
It's a mystery to me how actors can say lines like these, or how they can deal with the dialogue, which sometimes reminded me of that curiously hypnotic anime cartoon Dragonball Z. They do their best, but the only possibility with language like this is declamation. And declaim they do.
On the structural level, Wright has removed the stories of Penelope and Telemachus, Odysseus' wife and son, thus emptying the home that Odysseus longs for (as we are told many, many times) of its major emotional significance. He has also made bizarre decisions, such as taking out Homer's best joke: when the Cyclops asks who it is who has blinded him, Odysseus cunningly replies "No one!", so that when the Cyclops complains later that no one blinded him, the gods laugh at him. But in this version, Odysseus gives his name and address, for reasons which remain completely unclear.
He has also pointedly made Odysseus a hapless victim, not of the Gods, but of women. Even Homer (Kris McQuade), who with writerly sadism puts her character through the mill, is a woman. The feminine - cloyingly maternal or sadistically and manipulatively sexual - represents only forgetting or death. "I have come from something dark," says Odysseus, referring presumably to Troy but also to Other Things. "We will all return to something dark...a deep hole in the earth". Penelope, the enduring symbol of fidelity, is erased almost altogether. Athena (Suzannah McDonald), the virgin goddess of war who orchestrates the events, is bafflingly infantalised as a little girl in a sailor suit. The virgin/whore dichotomy is here in spades.
The play finishes at the point when Odysseus is about to return home and slaughter Penelope's suitors, who have been making riot on Ithaca, thus underscoring heavily and without irony a patriarchal moral (a kingless country must inevitably turn to anarchy) that is actually mitigated in the original by Penelope's womanly authority. There is a conservatism embedded in this script that is deeply at odds with its gestures towards innovation. It is mystifying to me why so much money, skill and resources were lavished on a text of such intellectual and theatrical poverty.
Picture: Belinda McClory as Circe and Stephen Phillips as Odysseus in The Odyssey
Saturday, October 15, 2005
Alison's Festival Diary #3