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VIBRANT WITH ENERGY AND IMAGINATION

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Unwrapping Christmas 2013
THE ODYSSEY
By Homer
Directed by Laurel Devenie

at Quarry Arts Centre, 21 Selwyn Ave, Whangarei
From 20 Dec 2013 to 21 Dec 2013

Reviewed by David Stevens, 8 Feb 2013


The basic concept is a staple of Hollywood – our gang puts on a show. It's one of the oldest and more successful movie formulas.

It's given a new twist by the Northland Youth Theatre with its production of The Odyssey at the Quarry, a fabulous conceit by Laurel Devenie, which isn't just a show, it's an epic.

Homer's great work is, together the The Iliad, one of the twin foundation stones of western literature: a massive tale of the ten year journey home from the Trojan War by Odysseus, one of the triumphant Greek generals. Hollywood producers might baulk at the budget necessary to put it on screen and the NYT is doing on a shoestring.

But wait – there's more. The NYT is never just about the show – it is about the young people creating the show, coming together as a team in a communal process to meet a challenge, and that in itself can sometimes be quite moving – as it was last night. Because this is some challenge.

This is not the disciplined dazzle of The Blue Airplane which I loved; this is a great sprawling mass of a work, an untidy but quite enchanting journey, a brilliant firework show – with a few damp squibs.

It is an adventure story, a love story, a husband/wife story and a father/son story. It is also a story about our relationship with the supernatural: human beings as playthings of the Gods, subject to whim or fate or luck or chance.

It gets off to a slightly rocky start but when it takes wing the first hour is close to a triumph. It begins, for some, with a journey through the Trojan War. This idea is stunning and more than a little disturbing – we, blindfolded, put our comfort and security in the hands of children we don't know in a place we don't know. If it were just the Trojan War it would have been remarkable but it goes on too long. It incorporates elements of The Odyssey as well, so when those events happen again, before our open eyes, there is a sense of having been there before.

Even so, going there again is pretty good; the Greek generals enlisting us into the army to fight the Trojans and leading as to the performance space. Now it begins in earnest and the next hour is breathtakingly inventive. We move seamlessly through a world of Gods and one-eyed giants (the arrival of the cyclops, Polyphemus, is a genuine and funny coup de theatre) and witches (a splendid, mystical, slightly threatening – and androgyne – Circe) and quite frightening sirens, and a daffy, ageing king (a terrifically funny performance).

And, unlike Odysseus, we keep returning home to Ithaca, to his forlorn wife Penelope, beset by suitors for her (seemingly) widowed hand, and his rebellious, angry son, Telemachus, yearning for his father.

Running underneath it all is the texture that holds it all together and separates it from the mass. At certain moments (I won't give them away) some of the youngest members of cast have crucial lines – which lines are fed to them by older members. It isn't disguised, no one pretends it isn't happening, it is a natural extension of the team concept and is also a basic concept of human society – the function of older to lead the younger, the duty of the strong to protect the weak. 

This sense of team unity happens time and again. I hesitate to single out any cast member – and perhaps Lutz Hamm might be offended if I include him as a kid; he's a young man now and an actor of presence and command – but just as he is an ideal hero of the fictional tale unfolding, he is also the clear leader of the team. There is a quite lovely, almost hidden moment when Odysseus is sleeping, surrounded by half a dozen of the young kids, all safe in his strong embrace.

All these grace notes are enchanting. The departing dove is a magic moment, just as Penelope (who has a wonderful, arresting stillness) sitting weaving with her women, all singing a gentle song in Maori, lingers in my mind. 

Things are a little less secure in the second hour but still filled with admirable invention. The journey into Hades has a haunting theatricality mostly because of one young man. Ms. Devenie is prodigiously talented, scattering her gifts around the stage with almost reckless abandon, but sometimes her sense of structure deserts her – those jewels sometimes need a stronger string.

This is most evident with the Island Of Helios, the Sun God. It is the climax of the adventure part of the story and ends with our hero at his moment of greatest peril. The sequence itself is fine, with a terrific speech by Anticlus – but because it is told as a memory, a flashback, by Odysseus to the dotty king Alsinous, we know that our hero did survive, and thus we have no true sense of his peril.

It isn't a serious lapse, but it is the only time in the evening when I became conscious that I was sitting on a wooden seat and my bum was a bit sore.

Ms. Devenie is back on secure ground with the emotional ending of the tale: the secret return of Odysseus to Ithaca. His reunion with his son, Telemachus, is psychologically perfect – the son blazing with anger at his father's long absence. The almost silent reunion of Odysseus and Penelope is beautiful, and would be even more so with more silence. Words don't matter here and the actors don't need them.

It's a bit of a race to the actual ending. Ms. Devenie has thrown Homer to the wind and the story of the archery contest and Odysseus's bow is abandoned in favour of a simple fist fight. But by now we're ready for it to end, and when the triumphant hero invites us to dinner, it almost feels as if we've all come home.

I urge you to see this eccentric evening. Don't let concerns about ancient Greeks and their Gods put you off, it is completely accessible: their world as seen by a bunch of kids in Whangarei now. Kids who are completely in charge of the complex material and guiding us securely, as did the tiny kids in the blindfolded opening, through a great adventure.  

It is vibrant with energy and imagination. It is life-affirming on so many levels – and it is joyous.  
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