Review: Mark Bruce Company - The Odyssey - Wilton's Music Hall

Performance: 23 February - 19 March 2016
Reviewed by Rachel Elderkin - Monday 29 February 2016

Mark Bruce Company - 'The Odyssey'  - Wilton's Music Hall. Photo: Bettina Strenske

Mark Bruce returns to the intimate venue of Wilton’s Music Hall with his latest production, The Odyssey, a take on the epic Greek tale of Odysseus’ adventurous journey home from the Trojan War.

Despite the relatively small stage of Wilton’s, Bruce uses its depths to great atmospheric effect. The sound of the sea echoes around the auditorium and, as the dancers emerge out of the smoke and darkness, we are plunged into a mystical world where the choreographer’s signature Gothic style is unleashed. Swords and blood abound and the opening sequence sees an ensemble of skeletons, accompanied by Bruce’s trademark rock music, burst onto the stage, the immortal gods in their midst.

Bruce doesn’t hide from the brutality of the Greek myth, from the darkness within its characters or the devious nature of its Gods (Christopher Akrill replacing Jonathan Goddard, and Eleanor Duvell). Odysseus, danced by Christopher Tandy, is presented as a hardened fighter, quick to kill and easily led astray by the female characters he meets – divine and mortal. It’s a contrast to the faithfulness of Penelope (Hannah Kidd), his wife who waits at home for 20 years, the pain of her endurance represented through the uncomfortable image of a bloody tally etched upon her back. Interestingly, Penelope is given a greater role in Bruce’s version. It’s a tactic that gives strength and a sense of control to a character whose trials are not ordinarily brought to the fore. The scenes switch between the struggles of Odysseus’ journey to those Penelope faces at home – most notably a crowd of threatening suitors, embodied perfectly by Alan Vincent, who switches from villainous to comically camp in an instant.

Bruce takes his time setting the scene. While in some respects it’s needed for a narrative which, by its episodic nature, jumps from story to story, it’s a slow start to the show. Bruce makes some random interpretative choices too. At one point Santa appears on stage accompanied by a chorus of fur clad girls who break into an over-the-top tap routine. Needless to say this playfulness soon turns dark, Santa presenting a new take on the monstrous cyclops. However eccentric Bruce wishes to be, there’s no escaping the fact that this episode remains a perplexing choice.

At such times the lack of distance between performers and audience becomes detrimental to Bruce’s larger than life style. It’s a problem that recurs throughout the ensemble sections. Fast, loud and supplemented by a burst of rock music these sections hit the stage with an air that says ‘it’s showtime’. Granted, some are scenes of more debauched behaviour, but the execution of them feels loose and throw away too and, when one’s audience is seated so close to the action, every detail is on view. Rather than add anything to the work they have the effect of repeatedly breaking the fluidity of the narrative so that the plot stutters from one story to another.

Phil Eddolls’ marvellously inventive set design is one of the highlights of this show. A large circular structure like a giant ‘O’ looms upstage centre. It morphs into the ship, or acts as a backdrop to the various lands Odysseus visits. Moved around by the cast the changing set becomes a part of the story leading the audience from one land to another and, combined with intelligent staging and lighting, helps create an atmosphere suggestive of Odyessus’ mythical world. The siren section of the second half is particularly effective. The female members of the company materialise around the ship, white and ethereal, to lure Odysseus and his crew – their ears protected by headphones rather than beeswax – with their song. While The Odyessy may have its weak moments it’s a credit to Bruce’s skill as a storyteller that he manages to add a modern day touch to an ancient story and maintain a sense of both.

The strongest sections, choreographically at least, lie in the duet work, often one of Odysseus’ liasons with the women he meets along his way. The encounter between Odysseus and Calypso (Grace Jabbari), is one of these more effective and intimate moments, the narrative clear and the movement filled with emotion.
The second half is altogether much stronger. Circe’s island and the land of the Lotus Eaters merge their themes of temptation and greed in a scene brimming with danger, darkness and seduction – exactly what Bruce does best. The condensed nature of the second half creates a more natural flow and this allows the work to settle into its story. Imagery, narrative and movement finally come together and The Odyssey draws to an end with the cleverly staged closing scenes of Odysseus’ homecoming.

It wouldn’t have been detrimental to the work to merge a few more of The Odyssey’s stories and this would, perhaps, have given a similar drive to the first half. Still, Bruce’s take is a fun and enjoyable work – as long as you stick with it. Any reinterpretation of the story is, after all, a large undertaking but Bruce isn’t one to hold back. His bold, imaginative take on the tale is, despite the difficulties of its plotline, an atmospheric portrayal of the Ancient Greek epic.

Continues at Wilton’s Music Hall until 19 March

Rachel Elderkin is a freelance dancer and dance writer. She has written for a number of arts publications and regularly contributes to The Stage, Fjord Review and British Theatre Guide. Twitter: @Rachel_Elderkin

Photos: Bettina Strenske

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