My Father Odysseus, written by Timberlake Wertenbaker, is an adaptation of the historical Greek tragedy about the king of Ithaca and his family. Odysseus (played by Jeffery Kissoon) is lost and delusional from battle in a parallel universe and story, and thus presumed dead. His son Telemachus (played by Theo Solomon) is left with only the presence of his mother Penelope (Ginny Holder) and her tweedle dee and dum ‘eligible suitors’ (Ben Adams and Guy Rhys) around their kingdom with the only saving grace and figment of his imagination, the god Athena (Charlotte De Bruyne). ‘Tel’ sets out to find his father and redeem his kingdom to what it once was, only to realise he may not be the delusions of grandeur as he had expected.
We initially see each actor, pre-set and in their natural habitat – playing cards, sun bathing, reading, aiming a football at the audience, surrounded by magnificent oversized structures that emulate a play-park feel. It is made clear that the geographical setting is irrelevant, and the actors are happy to tell us this. The fourth wall is demolished, and we are spoken to directly by each actor throughout the play, which takes place in a modernised setting: cement, simplicity and sporadic props, complete with bursts of colour, with simple costumes and hip-hop new age music – original compositions by Attab Haddad.
The actors open by speaking the prologue, interrupting each other’s lines to set you up for what’s about to happen. We know the background, we know the characters, we know it’s contemporary (there’s a Harry Potter reference), and we know it’s going to be fun… and boy were we right! The play has a balance of hidden meanings, multi-roling characterisation, historical relevance and a liveliness that keeps the audience captivated, whatever age.
This is established quickly by the actors destroying the set and covering it in strays of rubbish and balls (which build up throughout the play and remain for its entirety), suggesting we don’t take the premise of the play seriously and resurrecting a childlike light-heartedness.
The root of this mischief is Adams and Rhys, who childishly roll around the stage with beer bottles, scooters and miscellaneous props that force the audience to laugh out loud – at and with them. They show genuinely funny characterisations, with a hint of underlying threat portrayed very strongly. Props to fellow Scottish-born Adams and his silky moves, that had me in stiches.
The audience are continuously drawn in by mother-figure Holder and her velvety voice, often used to tell us the substance of the play with many a strong piece of text delivered effortlessly. She is also used figuratively to demonstrate the passing and weaving of time, always seen in the back feeding material in and around a pylon structure, from floor to ceiling. It’s just one of the brilliant details fed into the play by director Purni Morell, which make the audience strive to find these hidden gems.
The themes of masculinity and manhood are strong throughout the story. Solomon is continuously used to demonstrate this ‘men don’t cry’ attitude through ignorance, his headstrong manner, his belittling of his mother and his vanity. He does this with an angry façade and is the only character who has no playful depth. He is a strong, clearly versatile actor and definitely hints that there’s a lot more to come from him. This façade is counteracted by the companionship of De Bruyne: with her positivity and reminder of hope, she’s the glass half full that he needs – or plate half empty rather, as she is always depicted eating. She is the warmest of characters that the audience want to befriend and a beautiful breath of fresh air in the cast. And finally we get our dose of culture and skill, schooled by Kissoon. His array of credentials is shamelessly humbled through the brilliant character of Odysseus. We are on the journey throughout with him: curious about his description, unsure of his title, but always on side with the character. We don’t laugh and cry or see ourselves in him – it’s not that sort of piece, but he hits us right in the feels for sure: a real ‘how to’ in acting.
The play concludes as all Greek tragedies should, bringing in a slightly gory ending with an absolute tounge-in-cheek demeanour. Spoiler alert: it’s absolute pandemonium, and if you’re at the front, you might consider it a ‘splash zone’. The Unicorn Theatre specialises in performances and plays for younger audiences, to broaden the horizons of today’s young creatives. Wertenbaker’s genius is an example for catering to this, making a mythology current whilst maintaining its authenticity. The play is ridiculously easy to watch and spoon-feeds you the meanings of the text throughout, leaving you with complete understanding of the performance. There’s a lot the director has fed in for the older audience to discover, whether you’re taking a child to see it or craving some credible light-hearted acting, writing and design. If anything, it’s a reminder to lose yourself in playfulness every once in a while.
My Father, Odysseus is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 10 April. For more information and tickets, see the Unicorn Theatre website.