When Homer finished The Odyssey nearly three thousand years ago, he might well have thought as he laid down his pen (or whatever it was Ancient Greeks wrote with) that the poem he’d just written would be a hard act to follow. But over the centuries there have been countless reinventions of the epic tale of Odysseus’s long journey home after the fall of Troy, including at least one great novel (James Joyce’s Ulysses) and one great film (the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Just this year our own Anna Friel (of Brookside fame) starred in Odyssey, a flawed but enjoyable TV series in which she played an American special ops officer in West Africa, who spent an eventful 13 episodes trying to get back to the United States after surviving an attack on her unit.
Now Simon Armitage, one of Britain’s leading poets, has had a crack at it. He has form, having previously adapted The Odyssey for radio, and The Iliad for the stage (in collaboration with Nick Bagnall, who’s also his director here). The play has two time zones, with Colin Tierney playing Homer’s original hero Odysseus in one and Smith, a modern day politician, in the other. Armitage cleverly uses the device to explore Homer’s poem while also identifying numerous contemporary echoes and parallels.
Tierney’s characters – and he’s very impressive as both – are not conventionally heroic: Smith in particular has a colourful past which comes back to haunt him. A rising star in the British government, he’s sent to Istanbul on a diplomatic mission, but a fight in a bar turns him into a wanted man, pursued by the authorities and vilified on social media. His long struggle to get back home, where his wife (Susie Trayling) and teenage son (Lee Armstrong) are besieged by reporters scenting blood, begins. Meanwhile, his alter ego Odysseus is grappling not with a Twitterstorm but with mythical creatures including sirens, the enchantress Circe and the one-eyed Cyclops.
There are plenty of laughs along the way (including an up-to-the-minute pig joke), but Armitage also makes us think about the kind of world we now live in, with a xenophobic, media-obsessed Prime Minister (a masterful performance by Simon Dutton) and religious zealots burning effigies of Smith in the streets. And as he and Odysseus make their tortuous journeys home we can’t help but be reminded of the countless refugees currently struggling to get across Europe.
The closing twenty minutes or so felt unduly protracted, almost as if Simon Armitage were on a personal odyssey of his own, trying to find his way to the end of the play. Some judicious cutting might be a good idea here (a scene ridiculing UKIP seemed a rather lazy swipe at an obvious target). But he’s succeeded in making an ancient classic accessible and relevant, and he takes the audience on an entertaining, thought-provoking ride, with a production that’s full of wit, ideas and visual spectacle.
The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead continues at the Everyman, Liverpool until 17 October. For more information, click HERE.