Review- BAC: The Paper Cinema's Odyssey
I’d been aware of Homer’s Odyssey for a long time, knowing that it was a definitive part of the literary canon, a work which everyone is ‘supposed’ to read - a Classicist’s wet dream of a text, full of angry gods and monsters and mortals, all vying for power in the second oldest work of Western literature. Yet I’ll admit, I’d never so much as looked at it. I went to Latitude Festival this year hoping for something a little different. So rather than just swaying alongside other festival-goers in a state of vague, overpriced inebriation, I thought I’d try a bit of theatre.
With a start time of 11am, I was the only bleary-eyed member of our group to make it to BAC: The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey , but I sat on the floor, cross-legged in my mud-smeared wellies, enraptured by the highly original production. The simplicity of the play really put across its central story – that of a family trying to reunite against formidable odds: sometimes bitter and menacing, at other times witty and even farcical.
We’re all a little bit familiar with The Odyssey – the Cyclops and the songs of the Sirens are stories you hear when you’re little: sinister tales from a distant time. The Paper Cinema, supported by the Battersea Arts Centre, harnesses this childhood remembrance through bold illustrations, turned into animation before your eyes. The idea is simple but innovative. Puppeteers Irena Stratieva and Nicholas Rawling, the group’s artist, wield pen and ink drawings in front of a small black screen, taking us expertly through the Odyssey’s sometimes confusing narrative.
With no fingers or thumbs in sight, the moving images are captured by a small camera, linked live to a larger cinema screen. The product is essentially an 85 minute silent film, enthralling face-painted young children as well as their overtired parents and the other, mutually subdued festival-goers. Accompanied by various music and sound effects created by the rest of the team - Christopher Reed, Ed Dowie and Quint – the film tells Homer’s epic with the energetic drawl of the fiddle, klaxons, cymbals, guitars, synths, banjos; the result was an energetic and moody atmosphere, essential to a story based around the tumult of the sea.
The story itself is the tale of Odysseus, hero of the Trojan War, coming home after a ten year battle to his loving wife Penelope and son Telemachus. This is the plan at least. On the voyage back he and his crew are shipwrecked, held captive by a goddess, transformed into pigs, confront a dopey Cyclops and even visit the dead. After angering Poseidon by blinding his son and foolishly eating Apollo’s cows, Odysseus seems fated never to return to his kingdom, Ithaca.
Interwoven with the ancient subject come modern twists; Telemachus sets out to search for his beleaguered father at speed, on his own motorcycle or hitchhiking over the Greek landscape. Penelope’s suitors – eating her out of house and home as she waits for her husband’s return – are shown as ravenous wolves in something reminiscent of Roald Dahl, slaughtered by a disguised Odysseus on his return.
Recounted in fragments without any verbal narration, the flow of the piece at first seemed a bit confusing and oddly fluid. Yet the recurring motifs of rolling waves and a speeding arrows tie together clips of Calypso’s island and our hero’s tiny rowing boat, creating an almost hypnotic stream of consciousness. Full of movement and stunning illustrations, the visual effect is stunning, coming to life like some kind of primal cartoon against the musicians’ pulsing folksy rhythms. Reflected in the unending and perfectly choreographed illustrations, some drawn on old cornflake packets, the Odyssey is a constant journey into the unexpected.
Although at times you don’t know whether to be looking at the puppeteers’ clever animation, the artistry on the big screen or the strikingly ramshackle musicians – never letting the beautiful, piercing soundtrack falter – The Paper Cinema’s work demonstrates both stunning artistry and a wholly new way to tell a very old story.