“It is hateful to me to tell a story over again, when it has been well told.” (The Odyssey)
Almost everyone has at least heard of The Odyssey. That Homeric epic poem, the heart-wrenching (in some opinions) influential piece which, Wikipedia describes as ‘the second oldest extant work of Western Literature’. A poem reinvented and transformed over and over again throughout history, to the point where it has lost all excitement for me.
So when I saw production company, Theatre Ad Infinitum, putting on a one-man, one-hour telling of the canonical piece at the Wardrobe Theatre, I felt a little sceptical to say the least. Another attempt to create anew an age-old classic? Hasn’t it been done enough?
Yet, it was an unimaginable success.
Never before have I encountered an actor with the ability to engage an entire audience simply through his voice and body quite so effectively. The ultimate shape-shifter, George Mann seamlessly embodies characters with no hesitation, appearing to possess the spirit of every individual from the mythical, seductive calypso to the decrepit beggar. His physical motion, fast but clear, captured the dialogue between two characters perfectly, twisting and turning to depict the distinguishing mannerisms. As a female nymph, he sings. As a Greek warrior, he bellows. There’s even a fight scene with a dozen men – all portrayed by one body. His physical movement meant even if he had not changed his register, his accent, one could easily identify which of the multitude of characters he was portraying at that particular moment.
Confusing? Surprisingly not – Mann also replicated the narrative voice which overshadows Homer’s original verse, ensuring that the play remained easy to follow.
Perhaps one of the most distinctive moments of the piece is when the action stops; the director, Nir Paldi, has artfully inserted a scattering of moments where the fourth wall is broken. A mischievous side-glance here, or a tense, murderous second there, enabled the audience to empathise and experience a fleeting moment of affinity with each character. Assisted only by the changing colours of the stage lights, George Mann took story-telling to a new, unprecedented level.
At no point does the performance discredit the original either; the language of the shortened script echoing the classical, Homeric style through empowering speech and appropriately formal language. Injecting life into a classic that is, arguably fading, appears impossible. But in this production, Theatre Ad Infinitum demonstrates how modern expectations of great theatricality, demand props, lighting and even orchestra, are inessential additions. The simplicity of this piece will remain with me for much longer than any grandiose production could, the idiosyncrasies of the characters and the smooth, compelling transitions engaged me much more than I could have expected.
But, perhaps the most memorable moment was when the lights came up, the audience rose to their feet in standing ovation - and we were reminded that it was just one ordinary man on the stage after all.