Simon Armitage on The Odyssey, Liverpool Everyman

Following last year's Lily Cole-starring dramatisation of The Iliad, Simon Armitage now turns his hand to Homer's other great work. We caught up with the poet to discuss The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead, which premieres at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre

Feature by Michael Pedersen | 25 Sep 2015

Many describe Simon Armitage as our greatest living poet. He’s certainly up there among the literary luminaries – you’ll get no squabble from me if that’s your vibe cadre.

This interview, however, is concerned with his playwriting – specifically a new adaptation of Homer's Odyssey. Commissioned by English Touring Theatre, the production, called The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead, sees Armitage team up once again with director Nick Bagnall, who helmed The Last Days of Troy – Armitage's dramatisation of Homer's Iliad – for Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre last year. “Myself and [Nick] just had a real urge to see the story through,” he explains; “so let’s think of the Odyssey as the sequel to the Iliad. That’s what Hollywood would call it anyway.”

When we speak to Armitage, it's his first day in the rehearsal space with the cast/team/troupe that are bringing the piece to the stage. Full of intrigue to see what they’ve been doing with it, we caught up and confabbed.

The Skinny: Can you tell us a bit about the world – or worlds – in which the play is set and our Odysseus/main protagonist?

Simon Armitage: It’s set in two worlds really. In its contemporary guise we meet a high-ranking politician in the government – and all the themes about the gods and the power brokers in the story are based in Westminster. He gets sent to Turkey on an ambassadorial junket to watch a football match on behalf of the government and gets involved in a fight in a bar. At that point he drops through the trap door of time into the ancient classical past. So all of Odysseus’s journey, the obstacles he meets and barriers to overcome, are all set in the ancient past. The journey is one of trying to get back into modern life – where his family awaits in Cumbria in present day. The story dips between present-day politics – Britain and its complicated relationship with Europe – and the ancient past.

Are your Whitehall and Downing Street fictionalised or akin to what’s simmering away in London today?

It’s heightened and magnified but I imagined not a million miles away from what goes on in some of those committee rooms and behind closed doors – decisions taken and the language used off camera.

One thing that’s come increasingly to the fore since we started working on this, is the issue of people crossing Europe in boats and now by foot, which is very much what Odysseus is doing in this and the original story. He is trying to get from Asia back to Western Europe and some of those parallels and resonances have been echoed much louder now than when we started.

There are various unworldly beings encountered throughout the production – a cyclops, witches, sirens, flesh eating armies. How was it writing these creatures and do they have any contemporary equivalents that you were drawing influence or inspiration from?

With some of these characters I’ve sent them up a little bit; there’s one way of looking at The Odyssey which is very pantomimic – it’s one astonishing episode after another of one-eyed monsters, sorceresses, magicians, temptresses and more, which become larger and larger than life in this telling. Certainly one of the politicians describes Odysseus's journey as that of trying to make your way through a version of contemporary Europe where all the borders are down and the traditional constraints are taken away to make it a very fluid and unknowable place.

Can you tell us a bit about the character of Penelope?

She’s given the role of the politician’s wife as we’ve seen them through the 80s and 90s, standing there having to put on a brave face while her husband is elsewhere. But she becomes a very powerful character in the way she controls and organises that event. In the original, Penelope is besieged by suitors camped out in the house trying to win her hand in marriage and therefore the family fortune. In this version it’s tabloid reporters waiting in the house trying to get the scoop. Her story is how she both holds them off yet keeps them close enough to keep her story and her husband alive.

It seems the media take on quite a malevolent role and are destructive forces – can you elaborate a little on that?

Some of the writing is coming off the back of the Leveson Inquiry and is about intrusion and private lives behind closed doors and the way that stories get told on the outside. As you might expect the press don’t come out of that very well... not you of course.

To what extent do you play a directorial hand?

I was very hands off with this compared to The Last Days of Troy – then, I was getting to know how Nick Bagnall worked and the script felt quite raw. But with this script we did a couple of weeks workshop before casting and rehearsals and we both felt the script to be robust and in good a place. I did intend to go in but kept getting texts from Nick saying everything is going really well, so I let them get on with it. There’s an element of continuity in one of the actors too – Colin Tierney, who played Odysseus in The Last Days of Troy, is back for The Odyssey. It’s nice we followed one of the characters through.

What’s your relationship been with the Everyman Theatre?

The Everyman has recently been revamped and is a theatre that’s been at the heart and soul of things in Liverpool, it’s still got the atmosphere of the old space while modernising around it. Liverpool is not a city I know very well but it’s been fantastically welcoming and there’s a real tangible spirit in the city towards the arts, theatrical ideas and relishing language. We’re riding quite high on that. Given this is a piece set on a boat about ports and maritime culture, it feels like [Liverpool is] a good place to start. [The play] then heads off on tour; so has an Odyssey of its own to undertake.

The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead is at Liverpool Everyman Theatre, 25 Sep-17 Oct, before touring