With the Westway traffic offering an inadvertent soundtrack overhead it’s easy, during When Nobody Returns, Brian Woolland’s adaptation of the Odyssey, to feel a long way from Ithaka. But it almost doesn’t matter. The story distilled, Woolland exposes some stark contemporary resonances, focusing on Odysseus as a veteran of a particularly horrifying war and his son Telemachus as a boy heading for manhood, reared on fantastical stories of his father the hero. Even if it’s let down by its pace and some of the performances, the play cuts effortlessly to the quick of this legendary story and steeps it in the politics and the psychology of today.
Under the title This Flesh is Mine Woolland adapted the Iliad back in 2014, and in this pop up venue under the A40 the two plays are presented on alternate nights. On two long strips of asphalt, raked and sloping towards each other, we alternate between Penelope waiting for her husband, and Odysseus not yet ready to return. It’s a shame that the production’s calm pace prevents the production from gathering any momentum.
Apart from a brooding, haunted performance from Andrew French as Odysseus, the acting is either too much or not enough. In one scene a vision of Odysseus’ mother wails like a cartoon ghost. But the dynamic between Penelope and Telemachus, the protective mother trying to control her impetuous son, is well handled.
And, though the Odyssey can often seem unfathomable, Woolland extracts a theme and he cleans and clarifies it. He unpacks what it means to be a hero in a war, what it means to be a family still divided by that war long after it has ended. It’s a thoughtful, crystalline take on one of the oldest and most famous stories in the world, an adaptation that finds, in an ancient story of gods and legends, the poem’s latent humanity.