The Odyssey: Episode Five – The Underworld at the National Theatre
The final episode in the nationwide five-show epic is good, but ultimately feels like a missed opportunity for something, well, epic.
This is the story of Odysseus as she tries to find her way off Calypso’s island, dodge Poseidon’s wrath (after previously blinding the goddess of the sea’s half-son, Polyphemus the cyclops) and pass through the underworld, going up against Hades and his mind games – all so she can finally get home and see the son she left behind when she had to go off to war.
To be honest, The Odyssey: The Underworld gets a lot wrong. For one, there are 160 people onstage – that’s 160 people to costume, to direct, to choreograph and presumably to pay. It all feels a little undercooked with many costumes looking like cast-offs from pantomime season and some out-of-time singing and dancing. And it runs for nearly two hours with no interval, resulting in audience members getting up for the toilet in the middle of the action. But despite that it does many things right. While maybe lacking a showstopper piece, the music (by Jim Fortune) is good throughout; the lyrics and choreography incorporate pieces of sign language here and there, but one line in one song is entirely signed and it works in such a beautiful way that it seems a shame this technique isn’t explored more.
Probably too much time is spent on Calypso’s island and not enough in the Underworld, but Bush’s writing is otherwise pretty spot-on. In particular, her conversation between Odysseus and Hades is dark and twisted and fantastic. And it’s captioned by Stagetext in a way that is both helpful and unobtrusive – something that more shows should try to do.
There are flashes of brilliance in the set design, or at least in the Underworld, where countless letters hang from above. It’s the only piece that really feels big enough for the story and for the stage it’s on: grand and clever in the way it’s lit. A handful of superstars appear onstage, notably Emma Prendergast as Athena (who unfortunately disappears halfway through), Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Odysseus, Tarinn Callender as Telemachus (whose singing voice is genuinely stunning) and Zubin Varla as Hades.
The Odyssey: The Underworld is good as it is, but pieces of it make it feel like it could be amazing.
The Odyssey: Episode Five – The Underworld is at the National Theatre from 26th until 28th August 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch a trailer for the production here: