MIKE Kenny always knew that adapting Homer’s The Odyssey for a new stage production was going to be a big job, but even he wasn’t prepared for the sheer scale of the task he was given by Derby Theatre.
“My initial reaction was ‘yes, yes, I would love to do that’ and then I read the thing and it’s a beast – huge and long,” says the award-winning writer.
The Odyssey is the epic story of a hero’s return home after the end of the Trojan Wars and what awaits Odysseus after 20 years away.
It’s a timeless tale of war and reconciliation which has resonated down through the centuries – but it isn’t the easiest work to get a grip of.
Mike Kenny is one of England’s leading writers, specialising in theatre for young people and families. He is the recipient of numerous awards and was included in the Independent on Sunday’s list of Top Ten Living UK Playwrights, but even he has had a few headaches bringing it to the Derby stage.
He says: “It’s hard work and structurally very complex – stories within stories, very sophisticated.
“I expected something simpler but I only knew bits of it I and I had never sat down and read it properly.
“It’s the Breaking Bad or Sopranos of its day.
“The challenge was to take something that was meant to be told over a series of long winter nights around a fire into the course of a single evening. It’s immense and episodic and you have to find a story arc. So we had to lose a lot but we concentrated on a theme that’s still very current – the difficuly of men returning from war. I felt I had something to say about that. My dad was in the army and I was born at the beginning of the 1950s, a bay boomer child. He was a regular soldier and the Korean War was on, so he didn’t return properly until the middle of the 1950s when I was about five. My mum had to cope without him – so I had a perfect connection to the story of Odysseus.”
Mike has learnt not to be precious about his work and doesn’t have a fixed vision of what his plays should look like, accepting that the director, Sarah Brigham, the cast and crew will add layers to his framework.
“My stage directions aren’t that detailed,” he says. “In my head it’s an empty space and everybody does their bit to make the magic happen.
“It’s like designing a table. You have to make sure it’s fit for function, the right size and shape and that it will hold up. You don’t have to cook the meal that will be eaten off it.
“It’s a funny thing. I’m often very pleasantly surprised by what materialises on the stage and you would go mad as a playwright if you hung onto a particular vision as you would never get it.
“I never physically describe a character as if you see them as tall and blonde and the actor who turns up is short and dark you will never live with it.”
The Odyssey is at Derby Theatre until March 1. Go to www.derbytheatre.co.uk or call 01332 593939.