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BWW Review: THE ODYSSEY, Jermyn Street Theatre


James Purefoy is Odysseus in the unparalleled 14-hour long staged reading of Homer's epic poem.

BWW Review: THE ODYSSEY, Jermyn Street Theatre

BWW Review: THE ODYSSEY, Jermyn Street Theatre "So much pain was filled with happiness, at last!" There's a reason why we call a lengthy, adverse journey "an odyssey". In 24 books and over 12'000 lines Homer follows Odysseus, the "Master of plots and plans" and King of Ithaca, on his adventures after the decade-long Trojan War. Across another ten years while he was presumed dead, our hero saw all his crew-mates dying horrendous deaths, he was lured by sirens, killed a cyclops, and faced a series of horrible feats.

During all this, his wife Penelope and son Telemachus have to deal with a bunch of presumptuous, nasty suitors who want to marry the not-really-widowed woman. Those pesky Greeks clearly knew how to entertain themselves.

Leave it to Artistic Director of Jermyn Street Theatre Tom Littler to take Emily Wilson's translation of the poem and adapt it for an ensemble of 16 (ten actors and six different narrators), then assemble a glorious cast to stage a day-long reading of it, therefore carrying on the oral tradition of the epic. The result is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

James Purefoy spearheads the timeless tale of revenge, gods, and monsters as the legendary Odysseus with an unfaltering performance. Silver-tongued and exceptionally charismatic in the text, Purefoy adds a level of humanity to the man behind the hero. He shows him as an emotional and emotive man exhausted by pain and travel, but also as prideful and smug.

Yes, he delights in blinding and killing Polyphemus (and retelling his actions with graphic details), but, at the same time, grieves profoundly for the hardships caused by his absence from Ithaca.

That's what hides beyond all the blood, wit, and glory: family, loyalty, and devotion. Across six parts and ten hours of pure performance (which became 14 counting the breaks between the chapters), the company achieved more than what we'd classify as a "staged reading".

From Michael Pennington's frail frame thundering over the mortals with a magnetic Zeus to Robert Mountford switching between one of Penelope's arrogant suitors and a visionary prophet who acts as a comedic relief, it's hard to condense Littler's Odyssey in the few paragraphs of a review.

Susannah Harker's Penelope is coquettish underneath all her grief and despair. She recollects with anger and spite the moment the servants led her suitors to her chambers and caught her unravelling the cloth she'd been weaving to delay marrying again, but secretly delights in the attention.

David Sturzaker is phenomenal as the loathsome suitor Antinous, who Penelope describes as "the worst, like death" as he leads the group who's been abusing of the Queen's hospitality for years and squandering Odysseus's wealth and Ithaca's resources.

Surprisingly, the original piece is not without comedy, and the cast take these nuggets of gold and revel in them, with Mountford leading the charge. As a handful of characters (including a boastful Polyphemus), he is relentlessly entertaining and displays exceptional acumen.

While the thought of sitting through 600 minutes of relatively heavy subjects may seem daunting to many, but it's definitely the most authentic way to see The Odyssey jump from the page. Staging it "properly" with a devised script, changing sets, and major cuts would be a disservice to the material, other than absolutely diminutive and rushed.

Wilson's translation is sharp and accessible and the cuts made by Littler don't take any of the beauty of her language away or axe any events. He opts for a light shaving off the edges for better comprehension and quicker delivery (otherwise we'd have moved into Jermyn Street permanently).

The contemporary so-described epics (think Lehman Trilogy and the likes) have nothing on this classic and this specific take on The Odyssey is an unparalleled accomplishment. The full 14-hour experience was a fantastic and unique event - mostly because Littler is the only one who'd ever pull off something like it. It was an unquestionable privilege to follow Odysseus and his entourage as they established the powers of oral storytelling live on the Jermyn Street stage.

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