The Factory Theatre Company’s admission that “enjoyment is not necessarily our aim” inevitably evokes the same sort of sinking feeling as the words ‘audience participation’, ‘improvised theatre’ and ‘Ancient Greek dialogue’ do – all three being some of the many facets of the play’s technical toolbox of tricks. Entertainment and experimentation aren’t always mutually exclusive, but, if pleasure is a drug, then The Odyssey is an example of why pharmaceutical companies don’t test on their buyers.
The piece takes place in the Blackwell’s Norrington Room, surrounded by books, they pass wooden hoops between each other, gently ticking like a machine. Artificially enforcing a sense of camaraderie, some grinning like clowns that really just want to be loved – others like children’s TV presenters that really just want to go to the pub – the company explain the innovative format: 24 scenes for the 24 books of Homer, 24 different improvisational devices chosen at random from a clay pot, 576 possible versions of The Odyssey.
Though I do not underestimate the difficulty of their ambitious task, I couldn’t help but feel that these improvisational gimmicks were at the expense of showcasing the full extent of the talents of director, Tim Carroll, as well as his versatile cast whose strengths lay in choral singing and in quick comedic interplay. Clearly Carroll has equipped his actors with a very strong foundation from which to work: a clear storyline to follow, and an entire world to be created from just wooden hoops and sticks.
In the face of unexpected handicaps to their provisional text, the cast heightened their energy and imaginative efforts. Yet, when called upon to present additional interludes, designed to hit on some poignant universal truth, rarely did the improviser add more than a flat generalised – albeit well-delivered – allusion to theme, reflecting more on the actors’ improvisational talents than on the epic poem. The less spontaneous of these interludes (such as the recitation of poetry), as is to be expected, were far superior. It seems a shame that had a certain shard not been drawn I might have missed out on these outstanding performances. On the other hand, certain combinations of actor, scene and improvisational gambit were ideal. By chance, the scene in which Odysseus and his crew find themselves between Scylla and Charibdys was to be performed from the stage’s trapdoor.
My advice to future viewers would be to watch as one watches a magician’s illusion, for a lot of the fun lies in trying to catch a peek of the cards up the actors’ sleeves. However, if you aim to derive entertainment purely from the show itself, it largely depends on the luck of the draw.