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Simon Armitage’s The odyssey

January 10, 2010

Mostly when we travel we listen to the radio or music, but on our recent trip we listened to a 3-CD dramatisation of Homer’s The odyssey. The set was lent to us; the dramatisation was done by poet Simon Armitage for BBC-4. As my friend who lent it to us said, you need to get used to the British accents telling an ancient Greek story in modern idiom, but once you get used to that…well, this is a pretty good way of familiarising yourself with (or reminding yourself of) Homer’s work.

Odysseus and Penelope

Odysseus' return (Courtesy: OCAL @ clker.com)

The odyssey of course is Homer’s (ignoring here discussions of authorship) telling of Odysseus’ long journey home to Ithaca from the Battle of Troy. Armitage’s version begins with Zeus and Athena arguing over Odysseus’ fate and these two link the different phases of the story as we progress through them. This version essentially follows the sequence of the original but is pretty fast and furious, focusing mostly on the action and drama of the story…and that did, I must admit, get a little tedious for  a while around the middle of the production.

In other words, not much time is given for dwelling on the nuances or underlying themes…and there are many themes to explore in this work, including cunning and courage, fidelity and trust, the power of the Gods (in ancient Greek life), loyalty and greed. Some of the “truths” ring a little strange to our ears. Not only do we (most of us anyhow) no longer believe that our lives are at the mercy of the Gods, but there is also the old double standard: Penelope remained faithful while Odysseus had his flings. But other “truths” – the role of cunning, courage and loyalty in survival, and the vice of greed and gluttony, for instance – still work today, albeit in different settings.

I was intrigued though by Armitage’s allusions, such as the Bible’s “stranger in a strange land” (The Book of Exodus, King James’ version) and Shakespeare’s “screw your courage to the sticking-place” (Macbeth). But then, I guess literary allusions are as valid in adaptations as they are in original works?

There’s not much more I want to say about the adaptation: it’s fun, it’s well performed and it usefully and entertainingly recounts a classic tale. I’d recommend it on those counts.

The odyssey – Homer (Audio)
Adapted by Simon Armitage for full-cast dramatisation
BBC Audiobooks, 2004
3 hours running time

POSTSCRIPT: In the interests of maintaining synchronicities, a month or so ago I reviewed Arnold Zable’s Sea of many returns which focuses on Ithaca, and its literal and mythological contexts of “home”.

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