An epic journey ends this week at the National Theatre. The Underworld is the fifth and final episode of a multi-location production of The Odyssey, as part of the National Theatre’s Public Acts programme – which is tasked with creating inspirational acts of theatre and community.
Four episodes have been staged so far, in Stoke, Doncaster, Trowbridge and Sunderland, with amateur performers and local groups taking centre stage – and local stories and histories woven into the story.
Now many of the participants are converging on London to take to the giant Olivier Stage.
Among the 160 performers preparing for opening night is Sandra, 79, a widow from Doncaster who initially became involved in The Odyssey through weekly workshops at the older persons charity b:friend in her home town.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” says Sandra, adding that the experience has given her a new lease of life. She took part in workshops ahead of Episode Two: The Cyclops, at Cast theatre in Doncaster – but is preparing to tread the boards for the first time in The Underworld, playing a Nymph.
“As a 79-year-old, you think this is the end. But I have found that if I want to do something I can do it – and it showed me life does go on after losing your husband,” she says. “Taking part has given me another sense of purpose in my life.
“My character is one of the spirits that has been wandering around. She finds a letter to say that she is remembered. To me, as a person, I can understand that she has been so lonely and she is so happy that there are people remembering her.”
Sandra is determined to represent her home town. “I want to make Donny proud,” she says. “I want to do it for Donny!”
The project marks five years of Public Acts extending the National Theatre’s reach into communities across the country. It has been a mammoth undertaking – with workshops and events in the communities at each location.
“When I joined, I felt a deep connection to Odysseus’ story and journey,” says Oly, 36, from Stoke-on-Trent, who plays Spirit of the Dead #3.
“As a Venezuelan, I wanted to share and honour those feelings in my new community and be able to grow collectively with them.
“I have enjoyed making connections with amazing people and working in a respectful, supportive, and committed environment.
“As an immigrant, I always yearn for my home country as Odysseus did, yet I’m also proud to be part of a community that perseveres, improves, grows, welcomes, and bets on its people. Upwards and onwards!”
Julia, 67, was delighted to work with the National Theatre, performing in Episode Three: The Four Winds in Trowbridge – before heading south for The Underworld.
“I feel so proud at what we’ve achieved and what we’re going to achieve in London,” she says. “Proud to say I’ve represented a town that people are quick to criticise and who were amazed at our performance.”
All the participants we asked spoke of feeling differently about their home town after getting involved.
Ely, 19, who played Odysseus in Episode Four: The Island Of The Sun in Sunderland, says: “It’s made me feel more love for my hometown as at one point of my life I just wanted to move away and never come back for a long time. But doing this has made me feel a connection with my hometown again.
“I still want to travel, but it’s made me think I have a loving home town to come back to and a place to call my true home.”
After taking part in workshops at Sunderland’s newest theatre space, The Fire Station, Fiona (52), also got involved.
“I have enjoyed so much about this whole project and will miss it when it finishes,” she says. “I am very grateful to the people who have looked after us with care and sensitivity, and have got us through those moments of self-doubt and personal challenge.
“And the Olivier Theatre at the National is breathtaking. I will not forget that first moment when we were taken to stand on the stage where we will be performing. But the overall highlights, which will have a lasting benefit, are: the fun and the camaraderie we’ve enjoyed, the pride in being part of something inclusive and celebratory, the rare opportunity to do something very special in an amazing venue, the sense of personal achievement and growth in confidence.”
Clare Reynolds, co-director of Restoke, a socially driven performance company in Stoke-on-Trent who worked with Public Acts to create Episode One: The Lotus Eaters.
“We began with small creative acts – writing workshops, exploring the themes and beginning to move and sing and form our own stories into text for the show,” she says. “We gathered people who connected with the themes of resilience, overcoming and getting blown off course. During the creative process we saw people grow hugely in confidence, find power in their own words and voices, and show unbelievable support and empathy towards their fellow co-creators.
“Having Stoke accents on the National Theatre Olivier stage for episode five is a huge highlight for me – but this whole process has helped highlight Stoke-on-Trent and the talent and resilience of people in our city.”
Anthony Hope, senior creative learning manager at the Sunderland Empire, tells a similar story.
“Public Acts reminds us of the transformational power of performance, theatre and community and how they are intrinsically bound together. We are inspired by the rippling impact that Public Acts will leave in Sunderland as we continue to champion our local artists, organisations and creatives and shine a spotlight on talent throughout the region.”
Trybe House Theatre works primarily with young Black men to build resilience and wellbeing using theatre – and some of their members are among the London community participants. Philip J Morris from Trybe says: “As a company that focuses on the celebration of identity, it felt important to engage in this project. We’ve learned about the power of integration and connectivity of young men within the wider community. This is important when considering some the challenges that young Black men face.”
Accompanying the story and the participants on this epic voyage has been a 10-metre-long galley ship (crafted from sustainably sourced materials). Appearing in public places, including markets, local beaches and parks, it has been collecting stories and memories as people are invited to tie messages to departed loved ones onto it. Now all these stories, all these tales, all this love has arrived in London.
Emily Lim, director of Public Acts, says: “We wanted to do something we’d never done before which would really speak to our values. We believe everyone is an artist, everyone should have access to the tools of making theatre, and that theatre making can be used to build and strengthen communities through the power of shared imagination, collective storytelling, and radical joy.
“We loved the idea of telling the iconic journey story as a national community, in a way that allowed the story to literally travel around the country. And we wanted to collectivise this story of resilience by telling it in the voices of a national community. It’s a story of trust, love, vulnerability, courage, family, separation, homecoming, and belonging.”
The Odyssey: Episode 5 – The Underworld is on at the Olivier Theatre from 26-28 August
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