A long way home: The Odyssey Live Reading at the Southbank Centre

After I shared my struggles on deciding for a translation of Homer’s Odyssey after a visit to the British Museum I looked into the options available and decided for Emily Wilson’s new translation which got a lot of praise. The long Easter weekend was sorted, and I was enchanted by the power and modernity of this ancient epic. By now my book is full of notes and references. Reading it with pencil and sharpener close at hand felt like going back to my literature studies at university. When I heard about the live reading at the Southbank Centre as part of the London Literature Festival I booked my ticket immediately. Would the Sunday afternoon contain a read-along with audience participation, an interview with the translator and other historians or a staged audio play?

The Southbank Centre is a building complex of several examples of brutalism

During the week of the event the Southbank Centre’s newsletter invited me to do a personality test. Curious to see which of my characteristics matched with those of the heroes I got started – I disagreed with the result as my opinion is not too high on Odysseus’ son Telemachus but should I ever meet him in a parallel universe we can small talk about Kate Bush and Mad Max before I run into the danger of teasing him with the giggles of today’s audience on his attempts of immature masculinity. Both, him and his father, are nowadays questionable heroes with questionable virtues and values but the same goes for the gods of their time and their relentless favouritism.

The Queen Elizabeth Hall is well filled this afternoon and I am surprised about the two and a half hours announced on the program as I will now have to change my dinner plans. There is a musical quintet on stage, nine actors with textbooks in front of microphones and nearby my seat two sign language interpreters. The two ladies take the BSL translations in turns while the actors swap between narrators and characters. Sharing that Odysseus’ travels over the sea home to Ithaca after the war of Troy is no spoiler but general knowledge. It is also well known that there are many obstacles and dangers he must face before he returns to his reign – obstacles and dangers which can only be conquered by strategy, disguise, wit and the help of well-meaning gods.

Colourful light adjusts to the different atmospheres and musical interludes transport over the scenes. There are moments of acoustic foley art and thunderstorms of light and noise, bringing the dangers of the Mediterranean much closer. We hear sirens singing, learn the sign language symbol for cyclops and I am particularly touched by the music accompanying the scene in Hades, the realm of death, when Odysseus meets his late mother again.

Violin, cello, woodwind, harp and percussions formed a magical score

When Odysseus finally makes it back home after twenty years of absence he has much to sort out before he can reclaim his status– his faithful wife is sieged by a hoard of courtiers who want to take Odysseus’ position. Today’s selection of text will not spare the gory punishment of those household members seen as traitors in Odysseus’ own home, no matter how unjust it seems nowadays

No wonder the event overruns for an hour (my dinner is gone) and looking around I am under the impression a lot of visitors did not return for the second half. I doubt that this has to do with the quality of the setting – it has been a fascinating journey through ancient Greece. Admittedly, I had my eyes closed most of the time and watched a whole film in my head.

On the train back home a gentleman sees my Emily Wilson hardback and asks me if I am returning from the live reading; I confirm. His head was well filled after the first half, he claims, and then he left the venue. After all we were not invited to a reading marathon.

The London Literature Festival returned in 2019.

The Odyssey Live Reading was directed by Cederic Fox, musical score and direction by Jonathan Sacks and Ewan Campbell

**** out of 5 stars

I paid GBP 20 for my seat in the front stalls

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