Biagio Steps

The journey of Odysseus is possibly the most famous of all epic stories from classical Greece. It was put to paper by Homer in his poem the Odyssey, which is considered a fundamental pillar of the Western canon of literature and is the second oldest written literary composition in the West, preceded only by its earlier companion piece, the Iliad.

To say that it is crucial for every single child in the Mediterranean, if not the world, to know the basic plot of this work is not an exaggeration.

Theatre Anon has once again delivered a piece of theatre worthy of multiple repeat performances because of the perfect way in which their devised piece, Ir-Ritorn, presents the Homeric epic in a refreshingly new and simple way to a young audience.

What made this production one worth repeating on a regular basis to children beyond the suggested age group of eight is that it is fascinating from a technical, as well as literary, rendering

Commissioned as part of the ŻiguŻajg Festival for Children and Young People, this performance, staged at the Fortifications Interpretation Centre on Biagio Steps in Valletta, was a last-minute addition to my reviewing schedule – and one that I am now very happy to have attended, despite the fact that I had to sit on the floor along with the children.

The beauty of the piece lay in the fact that what started off as a supposed contemporary take on art, with four hassled gallery employees getting a performance space ready, became a magical journey where they are visited by a ‘soldier’ never mentioned by name, but clearly Odysseus, played by Paul Portelli, as the only fixed character in the play.

He takes them on a narrative journey, where they join in, becoming the various characters he encounters, as well as his travelling companions. Portelli gave an excellent portrayal of the first epic hero, giving a performance which was nuanced and sensitive. As the lead storyteller, he led the rest of the cast and the audience through the various situations he experienced and they peopled his tales with characters they interpreted.

Thus they fought the Trojans, sailed to the land of the Lotus-Eaters, were captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, from whom they escape by blinding him with a pointed stick, and were consequently cursed by Poseidon to wander the sea for 10 years.

This curse led their lucky encounter with the god of the wind, Aeolus, who gave them control over the winds, to almost sail home, but then get lost again due to the greed of one crew member who thought that the sack containing wind contained gold and tried to steal some for himself, thus releasing the winds which blew them far from home once again.

Thus Odysseus loses 12 of his 10 ships to the cannibalistic Laestrygonians, is trapped by the witch Circe for a year, as she turns half his men to swine, but is spared himself, thanks to the drug given to him by Hermes, the messenger god.

He then meets the prophet Tiresias who gives him advice on how to get home, and this advice, together with Circe’s warnings, allows him to experience the beautiful but fatal song of the Sirens as he is tied to the mast of his ship, while his men have their ears stopped with bees’ wax. Sailing between the six-headed monster Scylla, to whom he loses six men, and the whirlpool Charybdis, they get to Thrinacia, where his foolish men eat the sacred cattle of the sun god Helios, who begs to Zeus for their punishment and thus they’re driven into Charybdis, where all perish but Odysseus, who is then shipwrecked on the island of Calypso for seven years before he finally gets home.

For actors Charlotte Stafrace, Pierre Stafrace, Liliana Portelli and Jes Camilleri to portray all the above-mentioned parts in a fast-paced, very physical piece which lasted only an hour, was a feat of versatility and a proof of how dynamic the team is. What I loved about this performance was the sheer inventiveness and ingenuity that the cast used in the simple yet effective props, using cardboard boxes and cut-outs for the Trojan horse and their ship; shadow theatre to tell some of the other transitional pieces; storage drums to give them the added height of monsters; packaging for costumes and props; and possibly, one of the most effective yet simple devices of all: the use of thin plastic sheeting to symbolise the winds and the water – the rippling effect was stunning, especially under the right lighting.

It was a perfect example of how to adapt objects for imaginative play in the same way a child would. What made this production one worth repeating on a regular basis to children beyond the suggested age group of eight is that it is fascinating from a technical, as well as literary, rendering.

There was, in fact, nothing childish about it, but plenty of the creative, with humour and excellent diction and choice of scripting in Maltese which was a joy to listen to: whether you are eight or 80.

Truly a job well done – bravo!

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