views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Telemachy
Etcetera Theatre
20th August 2016


Arman Mantella as the poet

Photography © Juliet Avant

Who doesn't love a bit of Homer? Trojan horses, cyclops, sirens - the man sure did know how to spin a good yarn. Now, most people will have heard of Odysseus, legendary King of Ithaca and star of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but for some reason, they tend to skip over the initial parts about Odysseus' son Telemachus and wife Penelope. Although he may have travelled around the world taking part in many exciting adventures, Odysseus was a largely absent husband and father, and his family life is just an interesting angle as any to explore when revisiting his story. Enter playwright Alexander Day, who clearly agrees, having written this modern day adaptation of The Telemachy which puts the focus back on the king's son.

In Day's version, a travelling poet (Arman Mantella) has come to tell us about the loved ones Odysseus left behind, however he's a little bored of the tale and worse for wear, nursing a hangover. Well, what do you expect when you worship the god of wine, eh? Darting around the stage (occasionally clutching his aching head), the deeply engaging poet turns the black box into his playground, constantly varying his tone, demeanour and stance, drawing us into the ancient Greek world of his protagonists. Nothing other than Mantella's own skill is used to hook us. Despite all the energy, it's a very controlled and polished performance. The story may be peppered with modern references in an attempt to make it more relatable, but this is good old-fashioned storytelling, there's nothing new about that.

Music is used to punctuate the tale and create a bit of interest, with the poet at times reprimanded by his muse as he veers off track. As intelligent as the idea is, I think this device actually works against Mantella as he has us completely gripped and this interruption always temporarily breaks his hold. Forget special effects and being clever, all we want to do is listen to Mantella speak. We don't care about ethereal plinky-plonky noises, we just want to know what Telemachus did next. It's an epic I do know well, with my sympathies always having rested with Penelope and all the unwanted suitors she had to fight off and yet I still want to hear it told by Mantella as he has a wonderfully charismatic style that draws us in.

The Telemachy is not a props-heavy show, with director Milla Jackson relying on the actor's physicality and charm to convey the narrative. Classics geeks and London fans will nonetheless appreciate the wine bottles branded with Dionysius's name and the battered suitcase bearing a number of stickers including the Camden Town roundel. It shows an admirable attention to detail, one which is reflected in the script itself. After all, you can't be this knowingly irreverent without understanding the source material well, and Day clearly has spent a lot of time rereading Homer's work and considering how best to update it for a new audience and to make it more relevant.

Whether or not you're a fan of Greek mythology and epic poetry, The Telemachy is an utterly captivating piece of storytelling that will hopefully win over existing and new fans. It's fresh, irreverent and simply spellbinding.

The Telemachy opened on 16th August and runs until 21st August 2016 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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