thu 30/06/2022

The Odyssey, Mark Bruce Company, Circomedia, Bristol | reviews, news & interviews

The Odyssey, Mark Bruce Company, Circomedia, Bristol

The Odyssey, Mark Bruce Company, Circomedia, Bristol

21st-century Homer fizzes with energy, but reaches too high

Greek myth meets horror in Mark Bruce's OdysseyPhoto by Nicole Guarino

Mark Bruce did very well with his last dance theatre production Dracula, but this time around he has reached a little too far.

The Odyssey is a great text, but with the twists and turns of Ulysses’ return to Ithaca, burdened with the karmic debt of multiple crimes against the gods committed during the Trojan War, Homer’s epic is an unwieldy beast: it’s at times as if Bruce had himself succumbed to the avalanche of challenges the tired and traumatised warrior has to face on his way home.

The magnificent Victorian Gothic church of St Paul's in Bristol, home to the contemporary circus school Circomedia, provides a striking setting for Phil Eddolls’s versatile set, often misty with dry ice, a little too often perhaps. Mark Bruce makes in-your-face theatre. It’s very rock’n’roll: loud, brash, bloody and violent and not without a touch of humour. All this works well in a high-octane version of the story, a treatment that verges at times, as with Dracula, towards the entertaining but sometimes gratuitous cartoon spirit of the manga or comic book.

Odyssey, Mark Bruce CompanyThere are moments of singular beauty, enhanced by Guy Hoare’s inspired mastery of light – characters discovered in pools of light, shadows looming behind, occasionally startling costumes, not least the skeleton outfits straight of of a Mexican Day of the Dead and the pig masks worn by Ulysses’ crew when they are bewitched by Circe. Early in the story, we see an ever-present deity carve signs in blood on the bare back of pining Penelope, left bereft and waiting for her wandering warrior husband to return.

Christopher Tandy, in the lead, moves with a mixture of martial stealth and bruised vulnerability. This warrior is worn out, and yet, his sexual passion is clearly undimmed. Some of the best dance is featured in his duets with the women he encounters – from his opening piece with a very assured and present Penelope (Hannah Kidd) to his sensuous play with the nymph Calypso (Grace Jabbari), and his darker erotic entanglements with the enchantress Circe (Eleanor Duval, pictured right). Mark Bruce’s choreography is as assured as ever – a personal style that draws on many different sources, from contemporary, modern and jazz through to vernacular. He avoids the clichés that run through much post-Cunningham movement and works in a language of his own.

Epics are episodic by nature, and this aspect of The Odyssey makes for a ride that isn’t just beset with well-evoked storms at sea, but a kind of stop-go rhythm that no amount of dry ice wafting across the performance area can overcome. While Mark Bruce’s own music – mostly generated in guitars – is very atmospheric and works beautifully and in counterpoint with Ulysses’s sensual love duets, the choice to work largely with the contrast between Mozart (the magnificent Mass in C and the no less beautiful Ave Verum) and the hard indie rock of Mark Lanegan, Sonic Youth and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion can feel a little too facile and not always meaningful.

Maybe the use of abrupt non-sequitur rather than seamless segue is an aesthetic decision, but the sudden breaks only add to the sense of a piece that, for all the strength of its many parts, is struggling for coherence. We are, of course, in the allusive world of poetry and to expect linear sense would be inappropriate, but references to New York and Santa Claus, for example, feel a little forced in a narrative that at, other times, stays close to the Homer epic.  The gods used to punish mortals for the sin of hubris and therein may lie the piece’s weakness. This is a brave and commendable effort – done with evident passion and an inspiring sense of wonder as well as a dark imagination. But it’s as if the deep magic of the gods, so present in Homer’s tale and the story of Ulysses, had in some way not been respected, and therefore not fully exposed.


This is an excellent review which, I feel, will reflect many people's views (certainly the members of the audience to whom I spoke, as well as my own). The long, 'meaningful' moments of frozen gestures, especially in the first half, fractured an already episodic piece and the seemingly random use of contrasting music (the classical pieces rather obvious) didn't help. Coming so soon after Christmas, the Santa sequence was just plain naff. There were some wonderful sequences however. The pas de deux (do you call them that in contemporary dance?) were fluid and original, with some startling and expressive shapes. Christopher Tandy's solo, at the begining of the second half, was similarly striking. In fact he, and the principal women, were gave strong and communicative performances. It's just a shame that Homer's dark and memorable epic often seemed buried beneath an often shambling sequence of offbeat references and - though sometimes highly effective and atmospheric - often wilfully random music. Mark Bruce is a talented and original choreographer. I just wish he'd displayed it with greater clarity and purpose instead of throwing everything except the kitchen sink (maybe next time) at the production. I thought it somehow apropriate that the venue was home to circus skills! By the way, St.Paul's is a Georgian Gothic church from the 1790s, and weren't the vertical lines, crossed by a diagonal, meant to represent the passing of the weeks (years?) since Ulysses's departure?

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