After weeks spent doom-scrolling the Israeli war on Gaza, I decided to make my way through traffic and rain to watch a play based on Homer’s Odyssey. Following the grim atrocities of the Trojan War, our hero Odysseus must finally make his way home to his beloved Ithaca and his faithful wife, Penelope.
Soul of Odyssey was written and directed by Japanese director Hiroshi Koike working with the KL Shakespeare Players as part of his cross-cultural Bridge Project. It was performed by a cast of Malaysian and Japanese performers speaking in Mandarin, Malay, English and Japanese. It was in the small, ordinary, rather shabby black box at Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC). But once the play started I didn’t notice any of that. The space was transformed.
It was deceptively simple, beautifully, often poetically directed using strong, visual story-telling elements – the choreography, lighting, set design, make-up, costumes, masks, props, the multimedia all worked together excellently at the service of the unfolding of the story. It had an exemplary score with composer/singer/musician, Santosh Logandran performing live on stage. The other performers were a mix of actors and dancers from different performance genres. Koike had the dancers use their dance vocabularies (traditional, classical, contemporary) and it worked. There was also music in the form of the sole Noh performer, Imai Jinya, playing the kotsuzumi, the Noh hand drum, his voice guttural, haunting. It was not a fey haunting. It came from purgatory.
It all sounds very ponderous but it wasn’t. It was light, dynamic, masterful storytelling. Madcap in parts but controlled, with metronome-like timing, no one was allowed to overstay their welcome (though some came close once or twice). The clever score, watchful, and alive, kept the disparate elements together.
It’s easy to make epic theatre deathly, to overstuff the language, to overcrowd the space, a spear carrier here, ten foot-soldiers there, to make the scale so ‘epic’ the human story is lost.
It’s tempting also to make it too casual in a misguided attempt to make it ‘approachable’. Hey, Odysseus, where are you heading, bra? Ithaka! That’s epic dude.
It’s a delicate balance and I understand why so many contemporary theatre directors steer clear. Or fail.
Good epic theatre is the best night at the theatre, as contemporary as this morning, as ancient as the stones. It is comedy and tragedy. It’s personal and political. Of course, all theatre is political – the personal plus context is always political; Odysseus is interesting to us not because he battled the Cyclops but because he reluctantly went to a war not of his own making. In fact, he fakes madness to get out of it and when caught out decides he must honour a promise he had made to Helen of Troy. As our Everyman Hero, he is both a warrior and a pawn, both noble and cunning. He will learn difficult lessons about loss and death and come face to face with his own part in it.
The epic hero undergoes a crisis and comes to understand his place in the world. Epics are existential, otherwise, they are just tragedies.
Koike Soul of Odyssey is epic in many ways and Koike is a dynamic storyteller. His Odyssey is stark and theatrical – on a near-empty stage a heavy length of thick rope becomes a boat, tall white pillars are carried to quickly create courtyards and bedrooms, a Cyclops den, even Hades. Delicate plastic sheets are moved to become screens for the story to be told via multimedia, the large screen at the back of the stage becomes a terrifying ocean in close-up, a moveable scaffold gorgeously laden with fans of every size is the wind, ocean and elements that Odysseus and his men must battle. It is Poseidon, it is the Cyclops, Polyphemus, it is Circe.
It opens with corpses, and bloated cloth bodies littering the stage. One begins to move, apparently of its own volition. You notice it before your lights go down and you’re still talking to your neighbour. It makes you laugh. Sorry, you whisper. It’s an unsettling start. We then move quickly to Penelope’s odious suitors who are impatient for her to choose one among them for her husband because surely after all these years Odysseus must be dead. Except, of course, we know he’s not. And soon enough we meet our hero, on his journey home to Ithaca; brave, clever, virile Odysseus, loved by men, loved by women, loved by the gods.
Even more by the goddesses. Schwing.
He’s so popular! exclaim his men at one point in pride. He’s so popular, that they grumble later when he shacks up with Circe. After years of war, they just want to go home. Doesn’t everyone?
But the hero of Troy, the one who had the clever idea to enter the city in a wooden horse and slaughter its inhabitants and so end ten years of war must now go through ten more testing years before he can reach Ithaca. Koike skilfully draws us into the rousing, breathless adventure of it all. There are ten years of uncertainties and ordeals, of mistakes and moral dilemmas, of being marooned and losing their way, of giving up and fighting on. Sometimes as Odysseus and his men battle Poseidon and Cyclops, as they are seduced by Calypso and are turned into pigs by Circe, Ithaca feels like a dream. Finally when Odysseus descends into the Underworld even that dream seems lost.
Hades is a terrifying place. When Odysseus descends to meet the wraith-like dead the Noh voice and drum coupled with the use of ancient Noh masks create an atmosphere of profound sorrow. However, in Koike’s version, Odysseus doesn’t spend long in the Underworld. It is an evocative but mostly wordless scene and we do not get to understand the individual stories of the dead. It is a shame because in the Odyssey each encounter with the dead is as significant as each encounter with the living above, if not more so. It is the philosophical underpinning of the Odyssey and perhaps without privileging the stories behind the wraiths we meet we don’t fully appreciate the importance of his journey to Hades. It is here in the Underworld that the battle for the soul of Odysseus really takes place. It takes a brave man to meet the dead and to face the awful truth of a life spent in battle, of a life perhaps, wasted.
Many writers have taken this on.
In Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting, a dead soldier encounters a fellow soldier in hell. The man jumps up at him with piteous eyes. The dead soldier comforts him: ‘Strange friend,’ he says, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’ The man replies,
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”
It is in Hades that our hero, Odysseus has to confront the greatest of all human fears – the finality of death.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus meets the blind seer Tiresias who shows him the paths he must take. Devastatingly he also meets his mother, Anticlea, who had died while he was away at war. He tries to embrace her but cannot. Flesh, bones, and sinews have no meaning here. The abode of death is a terrible place. No one is spared, not even the great Achilles, the hero of The Iliad, the other hero of the Trojan War, part of Odysseus’ Band of Brothers.
How dare you come here, Achilles admonishes Odysseus bitterly. You have not yet earned the right. The purpose of life is to go on living. Stay in the sun. Once mortals die, they die. No matter how beloved by their Gods.
It is in the Underworld that Odysseus learns he must let go of his warrior path. His journey to Ithaca is to reclaim what is important in life – family, love, living. In Koike’s version, we don’t come to understand this fully. Perhaps it is hinted at by the atmosphere of sorrow but we don’t understand what the sorrow is about.
In his other great war poem, Wilfred Owen mocks the lie told to warriors: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. How sweet and fitting it is to die for your country. The meeting with Achilles helps Odysseus deal with the ten years of war trauma. There’s more to life than war and death. He has to move on.
While Koike chooses not to give us the details and nuances of this key encounter, his sorrowful scene in Hades does prepare us for the grief to come.
Mindful of the impending tragedy Koike keeps the beginning of things playful. He provides us with buffoonery and anachronisms and comic turns, riffing on Japanese manzai duologues (which are a bit like the Pak Dogol and Wak Long duologues in Malaysian wayang kulit) one funny, one straight. Here for some reason, both are played as comic which had the effect of making them more comic interludes rather than Wise Fool commentaries on the Hero’s Journey. This is one of the reasons these manzai moments didn’t quite work for me. I liked the idea but not the execution. Instead, it is the tragic momentum of war which carries the show forward and jolts us breathlessly into the present. When Odysseus finally returns home there is a bloodbath.
Suddenly the play which was in danger of becoming a series of rag-tag episodes from Homer’s Odyssey finds its dramatic thrust. It’s a tonal shift which is difficult to manage – some of the earlier comedy had kept us in the emotional shallows – but it still works. In rage and revenge against the suitors who have invaded his house and home Odysseus along with his son, the gentle Telemachus initiates an all-out war. The multimedia is packed with modern images, all too familiar to us especially now, bombs dropping, people fleeing, blood, death, misery, carnage. It is shocking.
In Koike’s version, Odysseus doesn’t reunite with his father, Laertes, and therefore does not come to recognise how the fathers of the slaughtered suitors are now suffering the way his father suffered when he thought him dead. Neither does Athena descend to demand peace and an end to the revenge. Instead, the war goes on and on. The stage is littered with bloated corpses. Koike’s version has come full circle. War is endless.
You can’t help but feel helpless that Odysseus’ journey home from the Trojan War taught him nothing. Maybe the journey wasn’t long enough. So quickly after one bloodbath comes another.
But at the very end when everyone is lying dead – including his beloved, faithful Penelope, reams of red cloth unfurling tragically behind her on stage – and Odysseus is alone, he falters. He turns to look at us then with an expression at once anguished and unfathomable. It’s a powerful moment, thanks in no small part to the performer Lee Swee Keong who plays Odysseus. Every fibre of his body is alive, every fibre of his body is dead. His grief is devastating. He is in his own private hell. This is Odysseus who did not learn the lessons of the Underworld. Maybe that is why Koike cut short his journey there. This Odysseus doesn’t deal with the trauma of war, never releases the warrior’s soul, and never takes on the soul of the son, the father, or the husband. Instead because of his desire for revenge, everyone he loved is dead.
It’s a challenging show for performers and producers and you could see everyone brought their A-game. Kudos to all the performers and KLSP for rising to the task. Actors had to learn to dance, and dancers to act. The dancers had their own expansive physical vocabulary to tap into; dancers like James Kan could showcase his impressive vocabulary but it was also good to see young actors like Tin Raman having an opportunity to expand his. The sole female performer actor/dancer Nurul Sofia brought a lovely strength and anguish to her Penelope and Seng Soo Meng played his Cyclops with a poignant clumsy earnestness.
Exceptional were butoh dancer Lee Swee Keong and Japanese Noh performer, Imai Jinya. With both of these performers, we transcend time and space. Swee Keong’s face, body and eyebrows are so expressive he doesn’t need words. In fact, words sometimes felt out of place. But through his meditation and butoh practice he transports us to a parallel spiritual reality. Here we can understand human suffering and the spiritual and existential questions at the heart of the play. The same was true of the Japanese Noh actor. Anchored in Noh tradition Imai Jinya has the powerful voice and body needed for this type of total theatre, switching effortlessly between melancholy clown, terrified follower and the unsettling presence of the underworld.
I can hear his haunting drum still, the shrill whistle of death. Because death is all around us, it is the end of every journey, however much you think you are loved by the gods.
On the way home I thought to myself that it would have been better if Odysseus never reached home if all he brings with him is more killing.
In his poem Ithaka, the Greek poet CP Cavafy writes:
‘As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.’
The fighter Odysseus arrives back home in Ithaca with the soul of the demons he had encountered still within. He wants revenge. His journey was not long enough to teach him wisdom. He did not stay in the Underworld long enough to understand the torment of death. He embarks on total war. He wants to kill not only the suitors but all their families.
In Homer’s Odyssey, it takes divine intervention in the form of Athena to end the violence. In Koike’s 2023 version, however, we are beyond divine intervention, there is no deux ex machina, not now, not with genocide happening so close. It felt right.
In his poem, Cavafy tells the reader not to hurry on the beautiful journey to Ithaka. Stop on the way, he tells us. Learn from the Egyptians! Enjoy the pleasures of Phoenician treasures. Stop. Learn. Feel pleasure and love.
Maybe as a Greek he understood that war is death and death is Hades. There are no martyrs, no heroes there. All you have is your Ithaka and that perilous, marvellous, long journey to her beautiful shores. How long should the journey there last?
“Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her, you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”
Soul of Odyssey was directed by Hiroshi Koike and produced by Hiroshi Koike Bridge Project (HKBP) in collaboration with the KL Shakespeare Players. It was presented at DPAC from October 26 to 29 2023.
Cover image by Goh Bong Hiang.