On the trail of The Odyssey: The Almeida’s Greek series concludes with London-wide readings
To conclude the Almeida Theatre’s stunning Greek festival, artistic director Rupert Goold and associate director Robert Icke gathered an “army” of actors to lead live readings of Homer’s The Odyssey around iconic locations in London, which was also streamed live for viewers at home.
The Almeida staged a similar event in August of this year with a live reading of Homer’s Iliad, including locations like the British Museum, and to follow, the theatre enlisted over 50 actors and actresses to participate in a 12-hour durational reading of Homer’s sequel, illustrating the hero Odysseus’ lengthy and tumultuous journey home after the Trojan War. The Odyssey portrays Odysseus’ encounters with an array of mythical creatures that obstruct his voyage back to his family in Ithaca. The story is one of identity and purpose, and explores the meaning of homecoming, which resonates as much today as it did in antiquity.
The event was a mammoth task, starting from 8.30am and finishing at 9.30pm with over 50 participants, including Miranda Richardson, Dame Janet Suzman, Stanley Tucci and Sir Ian McKellen. On arriving early in the morning at the Almeida in Islington, each audience member was given a ticket resembling a National Rail train ticket, a trope of the modern journey, which continued at each site-specific venue.
The Almeida recalled a cavernous, stone tomb with a single podium, and two screens either side displaying a live Twitter stream – perhaps the perfect setting to merge antiquity and modernity. Simon Russell Beale commenced the reading with a strong introduction with appearances from multiple guests, and to the audience’s surprise Kate Fleetwood (currently performing in the Almeida’s Medea) left the stage and exited the theatre during her reading. The confused audience remained in their seats for a moment and then realised that was the cue to transfer locations. The screens linked to the live streams showed that the actors were reading en-route to the new location with unusual pit stops, such as the rooftop of a building on Upper Street.
Whilst travelling to the second unfamiliar location, Tower Pier, one could follow Twitter to receive updates of the hero’s journey. It was unfortunate that travel between sites made it difficult to stay immersed in the text, however, the second location was by far the most exciting and unique. On a river boat on the Thames, Olivia Williams continued the epic, travelling under Tower Bridge and passing such landmarks as the Southbank, Parliament and the London Eye, all in typical British weather conditions. Amidst the cold, wind, rain and the lack of Twitter updates to simplify Robert Fagles’ intricate translation, the struggle to be fully engrossed was apparent – even as Stanley Tucci skilfully read, in command of his pages fluttering in the harsh wind.
The third location, Islington Town Hall, was intimidating – even more so on entering to encounter Sir Ian McKellen sat stoically at the head of the council chamber. His presence was silencing, he cleared his throat and the whole room turned to gape at him. The chamber itself was decorated with rich, red carpeting and positioned with a semi-circle of wooden pews facing the throne-like council stand. McKellen was nothing short of majestic.
Ten hours from the beginning of the reading, the final secret location was revealed, and the crowd was led to Islington Square where an outdoor stage with the same screens and podiums was placed, with massive fiery torches on either side of the structure. In the final hours of Homer’s iconic epic, readers Andrew Scott, Ian Hart, and Lydia Leonard gave memorable performances.
Overall the experience was a unique theatrical experiment. The event played with the idea of site-specific and promenade theatre, creating a tangible, modern experience resembling the tempestuous and onerous journey of Odysseus. It was theatre in the purest form staged in unconventional venues, and a classic epic updated for the digital age.
The Odyssey was an exclusive one-day only event as a part of the Almeida Greeks, for further information visit here.