Taking the train back from Deptford after playing my own minor part in Teatro Vivo’s promenade adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey, I found myself scribbling names onto the programme. Unusually, the sheet of paper I was customising didn’t have its characters’ names listed alongside those of its actors. With a network of arrows and scrawled handwriting, I made quick attempts to right their wrong, adding “Obsessive nerd” next to Tom Ross-Williams’s name and “Insecure seductress” besides Natalie Ball’s, before crediting Natasha Magigi’s role as a “Spiritual maid”.
Of course, these were all unofficial character names, designed to complement my unique experience of a performance that created meaning through hundreds of semi-improvised personal interactions. The Odyssey was an epic journey around an east London district that not only took us away from the comfort of our auditorium row and seat number, but also transported us far from the familiarity of our role in conventional theatre, where we sit quietly and behave. For me, and the majority of my companions in the audience, getting into the right mental zone for this was the most challenging aspect of the voyage, but our efforts paled in comparison to the sheer ambition of the company.
It takes real courage to spend the first two minutes of a piece deliberately placing an audience into an uncomfortable situation, only to dedicate the rest of a production to making them feel comfortable enough to interact. Credit must go to the energetic company, directed with a certain mathematical precision by Sophie Austin. Springing from a script written by Vic Bryson, Sarah Sigal and Michael Wagg, the actors pitched their interactions to each audience member. Some flirted, some expressed concern at our lack of social etiquette as we joined the gathering at Ithaca, and all had the ability to cleverly gauge our knowledge of ancient Greek poetry; indeed, whether we could chant the Homeric Odyssey in our sleep, or mistakenly thought we’d walked in on a The Simpsons spin-off, Teatro Vivo could cater for us.
While the production didn’t quite manage to shake off an uncomfortable cloud of awkwardness, it brilliantly captured the excitement and sense of adventure at the very heart of this ancient poem. By splitting its audience up into four teams of voyagers and giving each group a bag of props to share, it encouraged us to interact with each other as well as the players. This style of performance meant we inevitably missed a few details of the production, but this was a small price to pay as the company fashioned a tailor-made retelling for each member of its audience.
The actors may have been skilled at encouraging us to interact and cooperate with each other, but they were truly exemplary when it came to forcing us to interact with Deptford. In an adaptation fuelled by imagination and atmosphere, railway arches became a “network of caves”, and a Siren in school uniform led us to a bridge over the River Ravensbourne, an appropriate place to meet the island-dwelling unrequited lover, Calypso. As well as embracing the scenery of this district, The Odyssey also collaborated with community performers to celebrate its people, a mood thrillingly captured as mesmerically enthusiastic young Spirits upon Wheels led us past shops bearing signs telling us that “skates are not allowed”.
The real charm of this production lay in how it powerfully married location and content in a way that was far from forced. This natural blending was most beautifully evident as the production filtered into Deptford’s Creekside Centre, where a good-humoured garden of smashed electrical goods, long-lost power tools and wayward shopping trolleys became a remarkable place to discuss the nature of the past – a fittingly creative and memorable highlight to a timelessly atmospheric night.
The Odyssey is playing at The Albany (across Deptford) until Saturday 8 September. For more information and tickets please see The Albany’s website.