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How many forms can Ancient Greek theatre take? In recent years we’ve been treated to an Odyssey made out of animated paper cut-outs courtesy of Paper People Theatre, a searing modernised version of Antigone starring Christopher Eccleston and Jodie Whittaker at the National Theatre, and more Medeas than you can shake a stick at – with one more set to join their number when Helen McCrory takes on the role this summer.
And now a courageous team have set out to show there’s life in these old tales yet with a production of German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus (in an at times extremely beautiful translation by David Tushingham) at the small black box Gate Theatre in West London. Inspired by one of the many strands of The Iliad, we are taken on an hour-and-a-bit long journey through blood ties, sacrifice and shipwrecks by five engaging actor-narrators. They take it in turns to act out segments of the story, and also to serve the role of comedic foil when things become too serious. In fact, the whole show is balanced precariously between tragedy and comedy, which in many ways is a blessing (and indeed the choppy script lends itself to this Reduced Shakespeare Company style playfulness) but also has the unfortunate effect of diminishing those moments which do strive to achieve poignancy and meaning.
Our guides (Alex Austin, Jon Foster, Mark Monero, Susie Trayling and Ony Uhiara) certainly seem to have a whale of a time, and do an admirable job of keeping things on track. It’s no easy task when the show is as messy (literally) as the stories it’s made up of, and the script requires them to continuously retrace their steps and re-evaluate the way the tale is told. At any moment, one of their fellow performers might pipe up to remind them that “That’s not how it happened” or “That’s not how the conversation started”, and the more fanciful or idealised aspects of the narrative are scrubbed out as that part of the story is started anew. If that all sounds bewildering, the show repays the effort it asks its audience to make, and is helped along by the likeability and warmth each performer brings: particularly the two women on stage. In her director’s note, Ellen McDougall states that her intention is to reflect the “democratic” nature of the play and this is clear from the emphasis on a quintet who are winningly diverse in terms of which parts of the story they most relish and how they choose to describe the narrative’s events.
The playwright originally envisaged a cast of between ten and fourteen people. However, in this production, the cast has been drastically reduced – a positive move both to ensure a better fit with the small stage offered at the Gate Theatre and to enable us to witness the great skill with which the quintet move between narration and physical re-enactment of Idomeneus’ story. While for the most part the women portray female characters and the men share out the male parts between them, some of the most interesting segments are those in which Uhiara temporarily depicts a man, changing her body language subtly to match this shift in gender. It would perhaps have been effective to include more gender-blind casting, and the actors do tend to be stuck with a certain “type” of character, for better or worse. Monero makes a convincingly stern Idomeneus, Trayling a sultry Queen Medea and Foster a humorous Nauplius (king of Nauplia), but couldn’t McDougall have jumbled these parts up a little more?
I was impressed, though, by the cast’s handling of both slapstick comedy and the darker moments within the script – all five of them working to control the chaos which seems to be always about to erupt on stage, leaping from monsters made out of balloons to jugs of water to bottles of what looks like ink but I hope is just coloured water (as it goes frighteningly close to actors’ mouths on a number of occasions). With Idomeneus, we are given 65 minutes which entertains but never quite enlightens – a self-consciously post-modern spectacle that touches on the slippery nature of storytelling: slippery in more ways than one, as any audience member can attest.