Vibrant is perhaps the best descriptor for the opening performance of The Odyssey: The Underworld, the play by Chris Bush that marks the 5th chapter of the National Theatre's Public Acts 2023. A voyage of bold colours sets the scene for Odysseus' journey home from the Trojan war, yet it was the personalities of the 160-strong company of local performance groups that gave this Greek spectacle its most moving quality.
Directed by Emily Lim, the play's set and costuming comprised of glitzy and deep hues, from the richly mustard civilian clothing to the ostentatiously hot-pink, gold, leather, and frilled get-ups of the Greek Gods. The choreography was equally vivacious, with one highlight being the impressive movement work by Impact Dance performers during the scene at sea. The community interactions that are at the heart of Public Acts were deeply weaved into this production, from the sweet moment that the audience were invited to join in with the dance, to the large companies used for party scenes and ongoing use of stage exits down audience aisles.
Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey's set was equally impressive; the rainfall of letters that shaped the staging of Hade's underworld and the neon, flamingo-pink Hotel Calypso were two effectively atmospheric pieces of stage design.
Yet it was the work of costume designer Fly Davis that stole my attention. The soft, sandy linen congregation of the opening scene worked in dreamy coherency, whilst the intricate grandiosity of the Gods' outfits were scene stealers. Hades' androgynous, rock inspired combination of leather platforms and a layered tulle dress, enhanced by the witty use of a lengthy black wig with a bald centre, provided a humourously avante-garde flare. Another standout look was donned by Athena, as played by the talented Emma Prendergast. Prendergast's performance beautifully incorporated BSL into their choreography, and their voice was slightly more impressive to me than their immaculately fitted silver mirrorball gown and headdress - only slightly.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster was a mighty and vocally strong Odysseus, yet the gender inversion at times risked a certain whisper of depthless 'corporate feminism' in the play. It was an intriguing choice from Bush, one I am inclined to critique, yet Duncan-Brewster's charm and tenacity in the role could not help but nurture admiration. Another redeeming stroke was how Bush wrote Odysseus' emotionality as a mother, as it tastefully balanced a compassionate maternal experience without compromising on the character's otherwise firm nature.
The vocal performances of the rest of the company were also nothing short of mighty, with Hamilton's Tarinn Callender impressing from his very first note as Telemachus. In the scene in which Poseidon hunts down Odysseus with a storm, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt's vocals slashed through the company's chorus, and were as skilfully slick and abrasive as the thunder and slashing waves below. Both performances oozed charisma, as did Zubin Varla, fresh from his role in A Little Life at the Savoy Theatre, in the boots of the sassy and pernicious Hades.
Yet, the real stars of the play were the community performers that participated in the Public Acts initiative this year. Inspired by the Public Works participatory theatre programme in New York, the National Theatre's Public Acts is now in its 5th year of community theatre-making. Following on from four plays at venues across the UK, the 5th chapter of 2023's The Odyssey was presented on the National Theatre's Olivier stage.
The passion from each performer, and a few charming slip ups, drove the play's unique character and brought Bush's writing to life. The play's merit was rooted more in its power of togetherness than its faultlessness, yet the work of the performance groups such as Haringey Vox Choir, The South Wales Gay Men's Chorus, London Bodhrán Band and Impact Dance demonstrated true collaboration and skill. Their presence brought an energetic charisma to each scene, distinguishing this Greek epic as a contemporary tale of humanity and togetherness.
The closing song of "courage" proved to be apt penmanship for this project, and set a tear-jerking backdrop for the expressions on the company's faces as they soaked in their closing number on the Olivier stage. It's safe to admit that the smiles and waves from family and friends in the audience whilst the performers took their final bows were perhaps the most moving part of the production. The experience spoke to the true power and necessity of projects like Public Acts.
The Odyssey: The Underworld was, for me, a striking reminder of the true power and purpose of theatre; that is, to reflect, inspire, and build beauty and unity in a rather disjointed society. The play was a privilege to attend if only for the looks on the company's faces, as they gazed out to the crowd and took their bows. The immense spectacle and skill displayed over the 140 minutes prior was merely a bonus.
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Written and edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.
All images in this article: (c) Brinkhoff-Moegenburg. Used with courtesy of the National Theatre.