RUFUS Norris, director of the National Theatre, has always been keen that his company on London’s South Bank should live up to its name and be a truly NATIONAL theatre, for everyone. Five years ago, Public Acts was set up to pursue this purpose, and the locked-down days of the COVID pandemic gave Norris and his creative colleagues a chance to think in detail how it might be accomplished.
One of the good things about those dark and isolated days was that communities came into their own. The news was filled with stories of support and acts of kindness by neighbours, strangers, groups of people coming together in unexpected ways to help one another, particularly those less able to cope with the confusion and loneliness.
A plan was hatched to take one of the most famous stories of all time, Homer’s Odyssey, and re-tell it for a modern audience, unschooled in classical texts. Five centres around the country – at Stoke on Trent, Doncaster, Sunderland, Trowbridge and in London, were chosen for the project. At each centre, professional theatre makers joined local performers, some experienced amateur actors and some making their stage debuts, to study and re-imagine a section of Homer’s lengthy and often unapproachable work. The only condition was that it would show the power of sharing and working together and of human spirit.
At Trowbridge Town Hall, where the company was given The Four Winds story to dramatise, locally based writer and performer Florence Espeut-Nickless wrote the script, which was directed by Jesse Jones.
The 33-strong cast worked for months on movement, dance and characterisation, ready for the performances in the entrance hall and old council chamber of the 1887 Town Hall. There they delighted the packed audiences with their vibrant, compelling and surprisingly modern unfolding of the famous tale of Odysseus and his crew. Exhausted from years of battle and hardship and fatal encounters with gods and monsters, they were trying to get home to their loved ones.
But unless they all trusted their leader, Odysseus, they were doomed, and he was inclined to keep secrets from the crew.
When they pitched up at the island home of Queen Aeolus, keeper of the four winds, and Odysseus was the only one of the group invited to the palace, returning with a mysterious bag which he refused to open, they immediately suspected him to be keeping treasure from them. Inevitably, the bag was grabbed and opened, against the express instructions of the queen, and the wind escaped, blowing them away from the coast of home and back to the surging seas. Unless they all worked together, they would never reach the safety of their homeland again, and it was a hard lesson to learn.
There is also a present-day back story for Andy, second in command of the ship, set in Trowbridge, Westbury and the flesh-pots of Frome – giving a chance for dancing, swearing and a broadly drawn picture of deprivation and rural poverty.
In August, a group of the cast will travel to London to meet performers from the other centres, and see the climax of The Odyssey performed at the National Theatre.
The programme lists the company names, but gives no clue as to who plays what parts, perhaps because this is intended to be a community play. The Trowbridge contingent were particularly lucky in the performers it found to play Odysseus, Andy, Dion and the Queen, with strong support from all of the rest of the cast.
Photographs NT Public Acts © Brinkhoff-Mogenburg