Mark Bruce is a director/choreographer/composer who builds structures that dig deeply into narrative, playing with linearity and stretching imagination, through the integration – one might say, layering - of his dramaturgy, movement and music. His process requires considerable research, which means that a new Bruce production is uncommon and generally well worth the wait. The Odyssey is his fifth new project over the past decade and follows on from the huge critical acclaim – including two National Dance Awards – achieved for Dracula (2013). This new work is inventive, visually appealing, challenging, loud and hyperactive. 

Christopher Tandy as Odysseus © Nicole Guarino
Christopher Tandy as Odysseus
© Nicole Guarino
The production also sits so well inside this unique venue. Wilton’s Music Hall is becoming the London theatre of choice for the Mark Bruce Company, which also brought Dracula and its predecessor, Made in Heaven (2012), to this stage. Wilton’s is the only intact survivor of the Grand Victorian era of Music Hall and was in use as such through most of the latter part of the nineteenth century. It retains an extraordinary atmosphere of decaying, theatrical grandeur that provides an arresting intimacy, which seems to work especially well for Bruce’s brand of narrative-based dance theatre.  

Taking on The Odyssey is a massive challenge and one that Bruce sets about with his usual fanciful inventiveness. Anyone who can bring Santa Claus and a bevy of red-coated “Clausettes” into an interpretation of Homer’s text deserves to be tagged as an innovator. It is one of many scenes that enliven what would otherwise be a turgid text. Nonetheless, the quick-fire episodic nature of the work can be taxing, particularly in a long first act, during which I sometimes struggled to map the action onstage onto my rudimentary knowledge of Odysseus’ return from Troy.

The set – designed by Phil Eddolls – is brilliant in its simplicity. A large oval-shaped structure, upstage, acts as a gateway, a platform, and opens up to form the prow of a boat, designed to fit the “sword and sandal” imagery of the Trojan wars. Speaking of swords, the risk assessment for this show must have been fun.

Hannah Kidd as Penelope and Christopher Tandy as Odysseus. © Nicole Guarino
Hannah Kidd as Penelope and Christopher Tandy as Odysseus.
© Nicole Guarino
 Not only are there cigarettes to be smoked and thrown, but there are daggers and swords galore with plenty of throat-cutting and blood-letting: a scene in which Odysseus’ faithful wife, Penelope (enigmatically and excellently portrayed by Hannah Kidd) has her back lacerated with marks to denote the years of her husband’s absence is especially vivid. And the episode in which Odysseus (a brooding Christopher Tandy) strings his giant bow to fire an arrow through a dozen axe-heads, is an excellent feat of illusion, even when seen at close quarters.

Bruce’s musical selections are typically eclectic; thirteen of the 31 pieces in the soundtrack are his own compositions, mixed with music as diverse as it can be: from Mozart, Bach, Chopin and Scarlatti to Sonic Youth by way of Sinatra singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  It’s played at high volume, which occasionally challenges the aural comfort zone in some of the heavier, rock pieces.

The work is busy. The second act, which deals with Odysseus’ homecoming, has greater clarity, but throughout the production, it’s easy to find yourself playing catch-up with the story. The cast is excellent. Christopher Akrill stepped in at short notice to do a fine job in replacing the injured Jonathan Goddard as Immortal Man; Wayne Parsons brought an air of regal dignity to the role of Telemachus; Alan Vincent represented Penelope’s 108 brutish suitors with suitable bellicosity; and, together with Kidd, Eleanor Duval and Nicole Guarino brought elegance, strength and stagecraft to an ensemble that managed to remain tightly integrated on a relatively small stage.

© Nicole Guarino
© Nicole Guarino
Having respectively been Scylla and Harpie in earlier scenes, Natalie Dodd and Lia Ujčič donned false beards and male clothing to double up as disconcertingly sexy, doomed suitors for the final scenes.     

So long as the viewer is up to the testing challenge upon their powers of concentration, Bruce’s complex and clever interpretation of this ancient epic poem is a significant achievement. As with Dracula, I feel sure that it will offer even more reward on further viewings.