As this perplexing adaptation Homer’s ancient text at last draws to a close, the protagonist notes that he’s been on a journey which he “can’t begin to describe, or explain, or understand”. I’m not sure I can either, but I'll try. Bringing the story into the present day, playwright Simon Armitage re-imagines Odysseus as a government minister called Smith – who finds himself accused of murder during a diplomatic jolly to Turkey. Accompanied by his bodyguard, he evades the authorities by diving off the harbour-side into the raging sea; it’s a frankly ludicrous opening gambit, and just the first of several preposterous moments in a story which the programme tells us “places the action of Homer’s classic into modern-day Westminster”.
Except it doesn’t. When he emerges from his dunking, Smith finds himself at the centre of a classical telling of The Odyssey – replete with burnished breast-plates and floaty white dresses, played half the time for laughs and half the time with an air of wide-eyed heroism. Smith’s sudden transformation to Odysseus is never in any sense explained, an omission that’s symptomatic of a script which doesn’t quite commit to anything. Neither funny nor serious, neither ancient nor modern, it covers the ground of Homer’s story but makes little attempt to explore it.
The present-day tale – which continues to run in parallel – is equally disappointing. Focussed on the wife and son that Smith has left behind, its efforts to mirror the classical storyline lead to a series of outright implausible scenarios, with a side-helping of clanging wordplay referencing the events we’ve witnessed. There is a positive, though: Simon Dutton’s magnificently self-absorbed prime minister proves a welcome presence, and his unguarded rants are reliable highlights in a script which does, to be fair, contain some very funny lines.
Yet while the humour often works, Nick Bagnall’s direction is oddly lacking when it comes to darkness or drama. The present-day story conveys little sense of the all-consuming frenzy which would accompany such a scandal; while back in ancient Greece, Odysseus’s men speak of unknowable terrors, yet in demeanour and behaviour seem markedly unconcerned. And Odysseus himself, already rendered somewhat one-dimensional by Armitage’s unchallenging adaptation, pushes heroic oratory and emphatic gesticulation almost to the point of parody.
A few scenes do display a confident visual style, and the staging conceals a very clever technical trick – which I’m dying to talk about, but which it would be utterly criminal to spoil. Overall though, too much about the play is less than epic: the Cyclops is an impressive puppet spoiled by a wimpy voice, Odysseus is lashed to his mast with the skimpiest of ropes, and the seas are crossed by a process of ineffectual oar-wafting, more fitting for singing gondoliers than desperate warriors.
Armitage’s script tries hard to capture the zeitgeist, with its references to refugees and the search for a place to call home. But ultimately, this is a shallow interpretation of The Odyssey – diminished, rather than enhanced, by its fatuous parallels to an implausible modern storyline. It’s a commendable idea to link a classical text with such vital modern concerns; but in the end, this half-hearted production manages to do justice to neither.