After his well-received adaptation of Homer’s Iliad last year, playwright Simon Armitage has returned to collaborate with director Nick Bagnall on the sequel. Both men find themselves at the peaks of their careers, with Armitage having recently been elected Oxford Professor of Poetry and Bagnall serving as Associate Director of Liverpool’s resurgent Everyman Theatre.
The play follows Smith, a charismatic, salt of the earth politician who disappears after becoming embroiled in a Turkish bar fight. As his family and superiors fret over his fate back in England, he lives out the experiences of Odysseus from Homer’s epic. Laced through the plot are critiques of the current political climate in Britain, with a prime minister who launches on a ferocious tirade against Europe and a gaggle of journalists looking to take advantage of Smith’s grieving wife.
Bagnall has said his aim was to convert Homer’s colossal poem into a sharp quick production. Missing Presumed Dead doesn’t drag, but while Armitage’s attempt to cut it down can’t quite be described as a butchering, there certainly has been some damage. The two parallel threads of his plot never marry together satisfactorily, leaving the final work feeling disjointed. The lack of clarity over whether Smith’s saga is a figment of someone’s imagination, or the result of divine intervention, is frustrating rather than intriguing. Other, more farcical, elements, such as a puppet Cyclops, are entertaining, but ultimately add to the uneven nature of the script.
The play is far from a failure, however. Signe Beckmann’s stage design is extraordinarily versatile, and worth a ticket in itself. Watching the floor come alive to mimic the rockings of a raft at sea is a treat, and the gaping circular entrance at the back is well utilised to replicate everything from a glowing sun to the opening of Cyclops’ cave. Director Bagnall takes full advantage of the space, creating woozy atmospheres and directing his cast nimbly. There is a dance-like quality to many of Odysseus’ scenes, and the moments in the lead-up to the bar fight are fraught with uncomfortable tension.
The acting is largely impressive as well. Simon Dutton has a star turn as the acid-tongued, patrician prime minister, while Susie Trayling’s multi-layered performance as Penelope is one of the most captivating elements of the play. Unfortunately, the political satire weaved into the script never quite sits well with the rest of the play. It’s unclear who is being criticising and why, not least because a pair of repugnant journalists earn the audiences favour early on by haranguing the evasive prime minister. Nevertheless, there are enough scenes in which Bagnall’s direction and Armitage’s purposeful writing come together to excellent effect, and so for fans of the art of making theatre, Missing Presumed Dead does not disappoint.
By Tommer Spence
The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead is at the Theatre Royal Brighton until 31st October.