There are several ways of getting a political message across in a stage production. You can go for the worthy, straight approach, such as is seen now in The Exonerated, or you can make it an exciting, entertaining evening so delightful that the audience swallows the polemical medicine with glee and sits begging for more.
The latter is the approach taken in David Farr’s production of The Odyssey: A Trip Based on Homer’s Epic at the Lyric Hammersmith. This is a magic realist Odyssey, set in part in the present day – the gods deliver the great king Odysseus into the not-so-tender hands of a British immigration detention centre. There, to justify himself and his seeking asylum (although really all he wants is to go home), he has to tell his tale, which takes us on a cheerful romp through ancient myth and theatrical tradition, from the hippie island of the Lotus-Eaters, to the Indonesian shadow puppet-style of the seductress Circe, to the Dr Who style encounter with the lumbering giant Cyclops.
The word “trip” in the title is no accident, for this is a seductively psychedelic production. Sometimes this is direct: the intoxicating lotus flower produces in the immigration centre such gems as “the strip lights, they are wicked, man”, but often this is wrapped into the insanity of everyday life. The inhabitants of the centre sing increasingly tall tales of the disasters that brought them there, such as “a giant fish took my sister away”, before explaining the sad hyperbole, still in song, “no one believes me whatever I say…”
It is easy to keep piling on the adjectives of praise; for an evening of pure entertainment — with added thought — in London tonight, I can’t think of anything to better it. The acting, the staging, the profusion of ideas and images, the changes of mood and balance of ideas, all come together in near-perfection.
Stephen Noonan in the lead role is powerful and perplexed by turns – he has the charisma to turn hearts – of women, and the men he leads – but as a perplexed captive is equally gripping. And he is, unlike Homer’s original, a man with a conscience, which provides a compelling almost-new ending to the play.
The “modern” immigration scenes are woven seamlessly into this ancient tale: “You think you are protected by the international law of the gods”, the violent senior guard Roger (Colin Mace) tells the bemused king. And yet, at the start of the second act we seem, again, that nothing here is in black and white. Roger is a decent man at heart – a man doing a brutal job, rather than a brutal man.
There is also beautiful, haunting music – particularly from the “Trojan” inhabitants of the immigration centre, who are dressed in gypsy style and play a colourful range of instruments, led by the sad but seductive Maira (Celia Meiras). The set too is a triumph – a towering, impressive but flexible space that fulfils its varied roles with verve.
A final thought: This is a thoroughly grown-up show, but it would also be a great way to introduce even a world-weary teen to the joys of Homer, before such pleasures are dulled by the necessities of exams and coursework. But whatever your excuse, go and see this show – behind the dull everyday facade of the Hammersmith high street is unmissable magic.
The production continues until April 1.
Links: The theatre, with online booking. Other views: Lyn Gardner in the Guardian and Natasha Tripney on Music OMH