The Paper Cinema’s ‘Odyssey’ is a heavily-cut version of the original epic story performed by people holding up and moving
drawings in front of a lamp, which are then projected onto a screen, accompanied by live music. The effect created on the screen you watch is that of watching a very dated cartoon being produced in front of you. This sounds quite rubbish, pretentious and pointlessly complicated, and we thought it would be, but it was hard to stay cynical.
Anyone thinking of going for Classical interest, as the unfortunate group of schoolboys on an outing behind us were presumably meant to be, may have been disappointed. The production hasn’t much to do with the Odyssey. The cut down plot has three parts – Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) traveling to find out about his father; Odysseus, strewn upon the ocean wandering from the shores of the Cyclops to the island of Circe and finally down into Hades; before returning to Penelope in her palace for a dramatic fight against the suitors of his wife. This is only a bare outline of the plot, and scenes can’t go into much depth, not surprising since they are constructed by two people moving bits of paper around. The group are open about the fact they are not aiming for a deep and penetrating investigation of Homer, but rather the theme of family. They did this rather well if without subtlety, with frequent trips into the mind of Odysseus as he reminisces about Penelope, and long pastiches of the queen drifting amongst the colonnades of her palace; all over a slow violin. Poignancy decreased with repetition, but the group hit their target, and at the final reunion of the pair was as moving as it ought to be. They did all this with more than a touch of irony – A bedraggled Telemachus hitches to Sparta with a barely dressed girl at his side under bill boards portraying “Helene du Troy”.
Classical pedantry aside, the main flaw of the performance was that the story was probably not easy to follow for those without pretty good knowledge of the original. Scenes varied between dwelling too long on moments of inaction and speeding through the more exciting ones with extremely detailed and complex drawings. Though riveting, these, generally violent, sections were hard to identify in the plot and to follow in themselves.
The simple storyline allows you to concentrate on what’s best about this show – its live construction. The production opens as a member of the ensemble sketches pictures of the major characters, with the pen and paper projected onto the screen. His drawings, borrowing much from Quentin Blake, were excellent and emotive, and watching a skilled artist at his craft was one of the best parts of the evening.
The three-piece band that accompany everything were also excellent, able to move from occasionally tedious atmospheric pieces to funny Bob Dylan spoof songs (during Telemachus’ road trip). The music was rivalled only by its medium. Everything was performed on set, with musical saws heralding the eery descent to Hades and an electric drill providing the effects of Telemachus’ motorbike. It was hard to tell if we were watching a gig with accompanying cartoons or vice-versa, but by mixing the two more or less equally nothing seemed superfluously edgy.
This was all in all a lovely show, and it’s a shame that you probably won’t see it (it was one night only in Oxford). The plot isn’t really the point, but it’s engaging enough to support the really great bit, which is watching talented artists and musicians being talented for you on stage.
*** (Three stars)
Paper Cinema’s Odyssey is currently on tour. Click here for dates and tickets.
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