On the 9th of October 2020 Jermyn Street Theatre produced a live-streamed reading of Homer’s Odyssey, the ancient epic telling of Odysseus’ struggles to return home after the Trojan War. The production is simple: a huge cast of actors read passages, in turn, from their homes, and in between there are brief videos of the sun and the sea. Yet it manages to be truly immersive. The absence of set and costumes means that we really connect with the words of Emily Wilson’s acclaimed translation and what shines through is the astonishing variety of emotions held within this poem.
The cast, directed by Tom Littler with Gabriella Bird and Cat Robey, is excellent. Emma Fielding delivers the passage from Book 1 where the goddess Athena, in disguise, goes to Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, in Ithaca. It is a very well-chosen passage for her. She portrays effectively Telemachus’ intense weariness and the weight of not knowing what has happened to his father. All he wants is to have been the son of a fortunate man, one who could have raised him. We instantly root for this earnest and bereft boy, who can greet guests so attentively despite his own immense pain. Fielding makes Telemachus’ speeches even more heart-rending with added touches. When Telemachus says that his father must be dead, she twice heaves her shoulders, highlighting how choked up he is; she lets Telemachus give a bitter laugh when he asserts that he cannot even be sure of his paternity. Athena’s speeches, too, become emotional and stirring. Fielding gives Athena a marked longing in her voice when she talks of Odysseus, followed by a tender fieriness when she states that he is ‘resourceful’. She comments on how Telemachus has grown with a sense of utter wonder. In short, Fielding reads with a remarkable sense of compassion and allows us to visualise every part of the scene.
Another standout performer is Mercedes Assad, who narrates the section of Book 10 featuring the bag of winds. Assad draws us in and entices us with her description of the splendour of Aeolus’ palace. She captures Odysseus’ soaring excitement when he comes so close to his homeland, Ithaca, that he can see men looking after the fires. Glancing round conspiratorially, she also captures the greedy grumbling of his envious comrades, who assume that the bag contains not wind but gold. Later, in her reading of the passage where Odysseus’ crew are attacked by Laestrygonians, she really gives us a sense of the sudden brutality of the incident and of the panic it creates. She makes the following section – where Homer describes the mixed feelings of the remaining crew members as they sail away – potent and poignant. She conveys to the listener the trauma of their experience and the tainted, troubled nature of their sense of relief.
Jamael Westman, reading from Book 5, gives a beautiful and memorable description of Calypso’s forest, bringing it to life. He establishes a great deal of empathy for Calypso in her speech to Hermes. Stanton Wright, too, must be praised, for his moving rendition of part of Book 11. He successfully conveys the confusion and despair Odysseus feels upon seeing the ghosts of those he had not known were dead. Elpenor’s speech, in which he begs to be buried, becomes intensely moving. A later section is even more affecting. Wright’s Odysseus is troubled by the fact that his mother’s ghost will not look directly at him or approach: she does not even seem to recognise him. When she later does know him, Wright gives a relieved beam to the camera that is both touching and infectious.
Annabel Bates narrates a section of Book 20 and deftly moves between distinct characters: the frustrated, emotional Telemachus, who is struggling to establish authority; the slimy and patronising suitor, Agelaus; and the jeering Eurymachus. Bates leaves us in great suspense at the end of her reading by focusing on the prophet Theoclymenus’ horror as he insists, in the face of derision, that a bloodbath is coming that will leave all the suitors dead.
Sam Crerar, reading from Book 21, capably amps up the tension and keeps us enthralled. Crerar captures the suitors’ snobbishness and scorn as they see the disguised Odysseus handling the bow, as well as the ominousness of Eumaeus’ orders: the doors must be locked and the women must stay silent and keep working, whatever they hear. The moment when Odysseus plucks his old bow is a key one in the epic text and Crerar does it justice, slowing down and letting us fully imagine the sound.
David Sturzaker takes on Book 22, the climax, in which Odysseus begins to enact his vengeance at last. He performs it with a fittingly chilling intensity. He establishes Odysseus’ outrage at the treatment of his property, as well as his sense of grim satisfaction at finally having his enemies trapped. He brings out the darker side to the epic hero and his absolute ferocity as he dares the suitors to run away and proclaims that none of them will make it out alive.
This marathon reading of the Odyssey is an ambitious project. While there are some minor technical faults – Emma Fielding, for example, is cut off too early – the ambition pays off. The live stream is both moving and memorable.
Image: Francesca Chaplin.