Presented by Giant Collective
Directed by Laurel Devenie and Katy Maudlin
TAPAC, Auckland | June 26-30
We never did Homer’s The Odyssey in Classics in high school. Instead, our class studied the more fanciful, literary Aeneid. Despite this, I remained fascinated by the former, giving it a cursory read and enjoying the twists and turns of Odysseus’s story and his struggle, but never connecting it with anything human or real. I had let my interest diminish until an invite for this show popped up in my inbox. I decided to go into the show mostly blind and I’m glad I did.
I’ve never really considered the universality of the story until seeing this adaptation by TAPAC and Company of Giants. It was previously performed, to much success and acclaim, at the Quarry Arts Centre in Whangarei with Northland Youth Theatre. I’m not sure how much of the production has altered, but a big part of the change has been a move to the surprisingly versatile TAPAC space, as well as a reshuffle of what I understand is a majority of the cast. Despite the changes, or maybe because of them, the show remains an engaging, highly entertaining, and sometimes moving retelling of a story that had me so captivated in high school.
You’re probably familiar with The Odyssey, even if you don’t think you are. Odyssey is trying to get home with his men after the ten-year-long Trojan, while the Greek pantheon is alternatively trying to help him and get in his way, throwing him in the paths of various horrors and trials. Take away the fantastical stuff and there’s a poignant story about a guy who just wants to get home. Company of Giants have simplified the story to it’s barest bones, and thrown on their own stylistic touches and flourishes to make it engaging and entertaining.
The calling card of the show has to be the burned out van that has been repurposed to act as Odysseus’s ship. The van is hollowed out, painted black, covered with little wood bits here and there (I am not a craftsman) which make it look a little like a Greek ship. It sets the tone, stylistically, for the rest of the show. It’s largely anachronistic, but in a way that’s a little tongue-in-cheek and totally fun; the costumes are suitable and appealing, the props are delightful and often genius (a megaphone and a headset are definite highlights), and the cast is entertaining. At times it’s like they’re acting in a devised high school show lurching from drama to comedy and back again, while on other occasions, there’s a total reverence for the classical text.
The directors, Laurel Devenie and Katy Maudlin, bring a lot to the production. It’s hard to put a label on the style, but as described above, it’s engaging and genuinely really fun to watch. Their adaptation covers the entire plot of The Odyssey in a relatively brisk two-and-a-bit hours. While some parts drag a little, it’s never boring. The directors throw a lot of things at the cast to deal with, from physical situations involving Odysseus in the underworld, to some nice song moments. Not all the stylistic choices work, but with a production this huge, it would be a massive achievement if they did. All in all, it remains an impressive achievement.
It’s unfair to single out members of the cast. For a group with such a wide variation in age and training, they form a cohesive ensemble, one that is never boring. Sometimes there’s a bit too much going on onstage, but for the most part, they’re an utter joy to watch. Lutz Hamm is a relentlessly appealing Odysseus from the very first moment, and he nails the character’s intelligence, charisma, and stubbornness throughout the piece. He does much of the heavy lifting in the show and carries it off with apparent ease. Equally appealing is Tomasin Fisher-Johnson as Hermes, and an occasional narrator. She’s more often than not the most interesting thing onstage, and she provides much of the show’s comic relief.
For me, the great achievement of the show—and it’s a huge one—is making this story, which could be lofty and distant, so instantly relatable. With their combination of cast and craft, Company of Giants have turned this well-trodden tale into one that anybody can see and understand and feel something from. In that sense, it’s immensely educational. I might have read this story in high school, but I’ve never really understood it until now. And even more importantly, I’ve never felt it until now. And that, beyond anything else, is what makes this production great.