Against the Aristotelian odds [by Matt Baker]
Less of a re-imagining or reinterpretation of Homer’s The Odyssey, and more of a performance piece inspired by the source material, Ithaca by Thomas Sainsbury and The Dust Palace is a true spectacle in the dramatic sense of the word. With a monopoly on home-grown cirque theatre, it would be easy for the company to rest on their precariously perched laurels and still provide entertainment of the highest quality, but company directors Mike Edward and Eve Gordon have a clear desire to not only present audiences with a truly unique theatrical experience, but also to extend the often flash-in-the-pan response to cirque theatre and validate it as a competitive theatrical mode.
It would be erroneous to assume each audience member knows the story of The Odyssey, but it would also be arrogant to presume each audience member will purchase a programme, which lays out the basic plot to this production. Whether a remedy in forethought or not, the exposition in the script is quite laden. It’s a jarring juxtaposition to the ability to interpret meaning available to the audience during the physical work, which allows for an incredible range of emotional content and storytelling in its extremity.
While there are moments within Edward’s performance where how he does what he does reveals the true nature of his character, this version of Odysseus is often at behavioral odds. Edward nails the comedic subtlety of the role, but is otherwise limited by the melodramatic dialogue. Hadley Taylor does well to balance this out at times, but also inevitably succumbs. This extends throughout the play into the meaning behind many famous moments, including Penelope with the Suitors, Xerxe (an effeminate yet male portrayal of the original Calypso) in general, and the blinding of the Cyclops.
Science-fiction allows for a huge amount of play for designers, and the Ithaca creative team do incredibly well in using the genre to extract the themes within the story without detracting from it. Campbell Farquhar’s video design sets the aforementioned genre immediately and is constant yet subtle enough throughout the production to maintain our suspension of disbelief, while costumes by Chantelle Gerard are reminiscent of various sci-fi and fantasy worlds. Music by Matthias Jordan and Jol Mullholand is fully weighted and works cohesively with the physical dynamism, but stands out best when sung live by the performers in an emotionally narrative sense as opposed to playing as a backing track. Lighting designer Michael Craven evokes the metaphorical light and dark of the various landscapes, heavy shadows drawing us into the minimal drama that exists in the play, and the transportation effect is simply brilliant.
Having worked with performers of extraordinary ability in the past, I cannot say I am always as astonished as other punters who experience great feats less frequently, but the Ithaca ensemble is truly impressive. The cohesion of the various pairings has a clear foundation of trust beyond that which is necessary for such acrobatic work, with Gordon and Rochelle Mangan’s Siren song a particularly dynamic highlight. There is drama inherent in the original epic, but in this production the idea of conflict and a driving plot comes last in terms of script. Odysseus’ motivation and reasoning remain a mystery, and without a three-dimensional character navigating a foreign world, it is difficult to engage emotionally beyond the movement. Spectacle is the driving force – and it still works against all Aristotelian odds.
Ithaca is an excellent step in the right direction for introducing mainstream audiences to cirque theatre. Script issues aside, it is an evening of suspense and decadence that is simply not offered anywhere in New Zealand by anyone else. The Dust Palace has a great responsibility on their shoulders.Their track record is strong and their work is developing well. With the right support, there’s no reason why cirque theatre cannot take a place centre stage in this country.
Ithaca is presented by The Dust Palace and plays at Q Loft until December 11. For details see Q Theatre.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview review by Dione Joseph