Immersing Londoners in the world’s oldest story

You may have read the Big Ideas blog review of Punch Drunk’s collaboration with Stella Artois, The Black Diamond, which was an extraordinary immersive experience that took place on the historic streets of Shoreditch. Well, it served only to whet my appetite and encourage me to sign up for more immersive theatre – what better way to see Laaandan town?

Thursday night was immersive theatre part deux. This time, a promanade performance by Teatro Vivo in partnership with the Albany in Deptford. But what really caught my eye was the production itself: The Odyssey, the world’s oldest tale of adventure and romance. A story so ancient that it precedes writing itself. A fascinating work for historians given that the author attributed with its creation, Homer, isn’t known for certain to be one or an amalgamation of many individuals; noone knows.

The experience began before the curtain came up, as an email appeared in my inbox the day before that read:

Thank you for agreeing to meet me… I need to ask for your help. My father will not be with us, he’s still not home, he’s missing. I need your help to find news of him… Please come prepared, this mission may take us to dangerous places and unknown lands… Bring this letter with you so I can identify you as friend.

All best wishes until we meet,
Telemachus, Son of Great Odysseus.
 

It was at this point that the excitement started to build. My favourite story of all time coming to life and I was going to be a part of it.

Upon arrival at the Albany, an old school friend of mine and fellow Deptford enthusiast and I were shepherded into a room filled with tables and chairs, laid out for dining. Odysseus’ slave girls waited on us and well dressed men (the Suitors) were stood around drinking and conversing. The story began to unfold as Telemachus was seen ushering a scruffy looking vagrant off the premises for causing trouble, before escorting his mother Penelope (played here as a high class and once very beautiful woman turned semi-alcoholic due to the distress of 10 long years without her husband) down to meet her guests.

We were told via a news bulletin on a large suspended screen of how Odysseus, Telemachus’ father was missing nay dead, which prompted the disbelieving son to gather us into groups and set us off on our path to find out as much as we could as to the great man’s whereabouts.

This took us into the deep, dark depths of Deptford, masquerading at different points as the island of Circe (the tattoo parlour just North of the station), in which we watched an unsuspecting male turn into a pig at the hands of the goddess (played here as an edgy, French tattoo artist), a warm guesthouse (the deli opposite the station) in which the previously encountered homeless man told us great tales of Odysseus’ exploits (involving various props including a bowl of olives, subsequently devoured, and a plastic giraffe) before agreeing to set us on the path to Hades, the home of the dead.

On route, we were plagued at every twist and turn by characters from the epic, such as the Sirens singing under the arches of the railway track and Lotus Eaters, in the form of a tracksuit wearing dealer in a back alley, attempting to distract us from our course (including one young woman licking my friend’s face…) until, finally, we came upon the gates of the Underworld. We waited for the green man (Charon, the ferryman) to provide us safe passage across the road (the river Styx).

Here we met many of Hades inhabitants. In order for the dead to talk, they had to be fed ‘blood’, which we were able to do in little shot glasses, slipped into some of our bags by the actors. We were then treated to some excellent monologues from Achilles, Hecuba and other key players in the Trojan war. It was a really well thought out enactment of Odysseus’ time in the Underworld and left the participant with the same feeling as did this book of Homer’s great epic; that the glory that great warriors longed for, which was ample justification for the brutality and extreme duration of wars such as this against the Trojans born of the most futile disagreements, didn’t exist. The dead lamented.

Mobile phones had been slipped into some of our pockets which, once the tales of woe came to a close, rang and informed us that Odysseus had returned! We made our way back to Ithaca, to Odysseus’ house and found Eurycleia along the way, who confirmed the rumours were true. She pointed up to Odysseus revealed in the window of a nearby building in full military regalia and – lo and behold – who should it be, but the vagrant that Telemachus had ejected from his father’s house only hours earlier.

After a brief reconciliation between father and son, they departed to settle matters with the Suitors in the only way a warrior knows how. When we arrived at the house, only moments later (after a heart-felt discussion with Eurycleia over the sadness of losing a dog – she, the family’s beloved Argus and I, our own recently departed black labrador Tess), the room was filled with blood, as Odysseus’ potent retribution had been executed. We watched as Telemachus, no longer the wet, uncertain boy that he was at the beginning of our journey, captured one by one and hanged the unfaithful maids, in the image of his father, the bloodthirsty hero.

A big idea for contemporary theatre to juxtapose the world’s most ancient story with the modern streets of London, resulting in thought provoking parallels and engagement of a new, non-bookish audience.

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