In the flickering candlelight of the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, Derek Walcott’s epic poem is brought to mesmerising life. Masterful performances from Jospeh Marcell and Jade Anouka make Walcott’s adaptation of his own poem leap onto the stage, bursting with life. Marcell and Anouka play all of the characters who people Walcott’s St Lucia, changing tiny elements of costume and switching accents to great effect. Anouka’s prim and uptight Maud is a particular delight, especially when she cuts loose, and Marcell is excellent as the old, blind ‘Seven Seas’, the injured Philoctete and the young rival fishermen, Hector and Achilles, fighting for the love of Anouka’s captivating Helen.
Tayo Akinbode underscores the whole piece with music, accompanying the story and providing the odd sound effect. On the Playhouse’s simple stage, Akinbode, Marcell and Anouka conjure the warmth of the St Lucian days, the sweat of the fishermen, the simmering resentment and jealous rivalries, the hangover of empire. The relationships are complex and the characters nuanced, which is impressive given that we are watching a cast of two. Each character is sharply drawn and instantly recognisable when they return. Bill Buckhurst has found an assured path through Walcott’s complicated, multi-layered story, and Marcell and Anouka more than do it justice.
Walcott writes plays, too, and this shows in his deft adaptation of Omeros. However, there’s something rather magical about the pure poetry that the actors speak in this production; there’s very little artifice or posturing and it feels entirely natural that these myriad characters speak in gorgeous poetry as they tell their own – and each other’s – stories. And the language really is gorgeous; Omeros is the kind of book that makes you pause every 20 lines or so just to take in the beauty of what you’ve just read, a startling image or particularly wonderful line stops you in your tracks. That it transposes so well to the stage is not a surprise, exactly, given Walcott’s talent and affinity with drama, but it’s nice to see.
There are moments in this production, too, that make me wish I could pause for a moment – Anouka singing ‘Amazing Grace’ over a plucked double bass; Marcell dancing for joy after Philoctete’s leg is healed – and actually, the piece could afford to slow down a little, to revel in its own loveliness just a little longer, to allow the audience those moments to pause. The intensity of the storytelling is so high and the Playhouse so intimimate that it can feel a little overwhelming at times – in a good way.
Omeros played at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse.