The renowned Jermyn Street Theatre – the West End’s smallest producing theatre – is truly keeping the wonder of theatre alive as it takes on the entirety of Homer’s The Odyssey. Across 12 hours, 72 wonderful actors have come together to read this epic poem, breathing life into a new version of the text, translated by Emily Wilson.
Wilson’s new translation is not just about the words, but also about the structure. Setting aside the dactylic hexameter, common to Greek verse, Wilson compiles the text with iambic pentameter, far more familiar to the spoken rhythms of the English language. What does this do? It allows the poem to be more accessible to a Western ear, allowing us to get a better grasp on the story than ever before. The flow of the verse sounds natural and elegant, trilling along like the beat of a drum, chiding the story forwards to its inevitable ending.
Streamed live via YouTube, the cast take turns reading each of the 24 books which make up the epic journey of Odysseus, not from the stage but from their homes. Whilst this brings with it some technical difficulties, it does provide a constant thrust of energy to the story, avoiding the fatigue that would come with an ever-present cast. From one to the next, the performers tackle the text with precision and courage, their voices differing so vastly in how they bring this story to life. This way of storytelling is the oldest recorded form of theatre, passing stories verbally from one person to the next, like the passing of a baton. In this respect The Odyssey feels as though we have all come together as a community to tell this tale, and share the story, as one.
With a varied mix of ages and ethnicities, the cast are able to create a rounded and dynamic performance, each book displayed in a different light. Opening with the magnificent Janet Suzman, who sets the scene perfectly and with such clarity, the show also features some stand out readings by Jim Findley, Sally Cheng, Miranda Foster, Mercedes Assad, Ellie Nunn, Gavin Fowler, Judy Rosenblatt, Asha Kingsley, David Threlfall and Rachel Pickup (just to name my particular favourites). Across the board these performances were very well rehearsed, with some readers even off-book for the majority of their text, allowing them to interact with the camera in a very different way.
Overall, the performance comes across very much like a radio play, where the visuals are mostly irrelevant, and part of me would love to have been able to receive it in that format. That said it was lovely to see the engagement both physically and vocally of the actors, though to receive it all in the space of 12 hours is a big ask for anyone, so I do suggest a few breaks!
Whilst this is not a huge production, given the times, it is an amazing feat for such a talented group of performers to come together in support of such a wonderful theatre. In doing so, they have delivered a wonderful reading of a magnificent literary classic.
The Odyssey is available to watch free online until midnight on Sunday 19 October. Books 1-4 are available on London Review Bookshop Channel and books 5-24 are available on the Jermyn Street Theatre Channel. Each video includes a full list of actors.