Homer’s Odyssey, the epic 10 year journey of a hero, is regarded as not only one of the greatest pieces of literature of all time, but also one of the most complex.
The poem spans across 24 books, is made up of over 12,000 lines of text in the classical dactylic hexameter, and of course, is in Greek. Referenced in endless movies, TV shows, and even other books, The Odyssey is one of those texts that everyone has heard about but may not have ever read. Enter Stork Theatre, a Melbourne based company whose aim is to bring these stories to life. Their past credits have spanned countless ancient texts, but they are returning to The Odyssey in hopes of bringing it to a new audience. The free public staged reading will take place on December 1st in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens at the MPavillion, an annual architectural installation which hosts a number of artistic and cultural events over the Summer. The reading features 24 of Australia’s most prominent performers, including Sigrid Thornton, Magda Szubanski and Jack Charles, and will run in two-hour blocks, working through all 24 books of this epic text.
Helen Madden is the creator and current artistic director of Stork Theatre, and I sat down with her to chat about her relationship with The Odyssey and the upcoming reading.
Why did you start Stork Theatre?
I studied Theatre, Greek and Latin at uni, and I fell in love with Greek Theatre. Once I left, a number of us from the same class wondered “why doesn’t Melbourne have an outdoor theatre for ancient Greek tragedy?” – so we thought we’d build one. We found that what people liked were adaptations of the great works of literature which they may have half remembered or never read. And this [Stork Theatre] was a way for them to understand what these great works were about. We anchored each program with a 2 hour performance reading of Homer, either the Illiad or the Odyssey; or Virgil’s Aeneid. It became so popular that we didn’t even have to advertise it, each season we would just have it on the noticeboard and it would just pack out. We’d have four actors sitting on chairs on the stage, reading a 2 hour abridged version by Dennis Pryor. It became more and more popular, we kept extending the seasons each year. We felt people wanted to reengage with these very ancient epics again. We no longer have them taught that much in school. Homer came along (or, whoever we think Homer is) at a time where writing was rediscovered, so it was able to be written down. If you just look at it as ancient storytelling – I mean, this park [Queen Victoria Gardens, Melbourne] would have been a place for indigenous people telling stories long before Homer started telling his.
Why have you decided to revisit The Odyssey?
It’s the classic story of a war torn soldier trying to understand what it’s like to live again after chaos and trauma. And of course, he sails the seas. He sails down from Troy on the coast of Turkey on his way to Ithaca, a journey which should take only 6 weeks. And it took him 10 years. He sailed off the known map. Ever since, school kids since the age of Plato up until the 20th century really used to read parts of it, or be told stories from it at bedtime. We all have a bit of a memory of these stories. It’s something that’s on the scale of a Netflix series or a Shakespearean drama. He goes into this journey of the mind, meets all sorts of dreams and demons.
There are 24 books that make up the entire Odyssey – do you have a favourite part?
The most interesting part of the story is when we meet him, which is not until book 5. But the first sight of Odysseus is with the goddess Calypso, who has essentially imprisoned him on her island. He weeps by the sea shore by day and goes to bed with her by night. She sees that he is sad and offers to make him a god, ageless, always in the brilliance of youth forever if he stays with her and doesn’t go home. He’s offered this immortality and he says no, amazingly. The first time in literature that a human being opts to be human when offered to be immortal. He opts to be human to find that is the most adventurous and exciting place to be. To be happy as a god is not exciting, not illuminating. But to be human, that’s where we find ourselves. In that sense it’s great as a moral for all of us.
Your staged reading is of Prof. Emily Wilson’s new translation of the text, one noted for being a refreshed, modern, and even feminist edition – why did you select this for performance?
There are a number of translations [of The Odyssey], this is part of a worldwide resurgence of interest. This is the latest and freshest, and Emily Wilson [the translator] hasn’t re-written it as a feminist version, she’s done something really interesting in that she went back to the original Greek and took out those words that have been embedded in translation ever since forever that are really misogynist and sexist. A classic case is Helen of Troy, in every other translation, beats her breast and says “Oh, would that I had never left home. What have I done, bitch that I am?” – we had Helen Morse performing and she wouldn’t say it. So I rang up a couple of academics and asked if it was the right translation, her saying “bitch”? The actual ancient Greek word does mean “female dog,” but the point is, as Emily Wilson points out, the same adjective is used of Odysseus, so it doesn’t have that terrible negative connotation that we have with the word. It just means “dog-faced” or “a pain.” All of the scholars were men, they never thought about the sexist connotations of it and just followed their traditional method of viewing women with these terms, and never analysed why, say, Helen was referred to as a “she-dog” when Odysseus was too. In translations referring to Odysseus it was always “scheming” or “clever.” So that’s what she was doing, taking out these embedded sexist terms that had always been there. I think it’s wonderful that we now have this fresh perspective of it – it’s not a rewrite, but just extracting the bad out that English translators have always used without thinking.
I think it’s lovely that this translation of the text is highlighting the strength of the female characters, considering there are so many. Are there any that stand out to you?
There are so many beautiful female characters, from Athena to Calypso. In fact, all the women that were goddesses or enchantresses or sirens, they were all as clever as Odysseus. They can all weave their way out of problems. Athena is described as both beautiful but also a great strategist. Penelope too is shown as a great strategist.
How will the reading work?
There’s one person per book. Each actor takes on all the characters. We told them to do it in their own words, it’s not tragedy, it’s storytelling. They have one rehearsal with the director but that’s it. We’re trying to do it as it was done in the hillsides in Greece two-and-a-half thousand years ago. Actors just love the chance to come to grips with Homer, because they’ve often never had the opportunity either. They see it as an adventure.
Homer’s Odyssey by Stork Theatre
A FREE EVENT
11am – 11pm, Saturday 1 December 2018
MPavilion, Queen Victoria Gardens opposite Arts Centre Melbourne