It’s something you might do in college, if you had a certain kind of drama department, except it was with some of the best actors in the world and more people watching than just a few very patient boyfriends. The Almeida Theatre read through all of the Iliad in a day in August (starting at 10am, finishing around 1am), after which artistic director Rupert Goold presumably turned to his actors and crew and said, “Well, that was quite good, shall we do another one?”, because last week they also did all of the Odyssey in a day, livestreaming the whole thing both times so people could follow along at home.
The Iliad reading started at the British Museum, where a series of actors got up to read at a podium in the Great Court, and ended at the Almeida itself (in Islington, north London). It was fun clicking over to the livestream across the day, especially the energy pop every time a new reader took over and reminded that gosh, our actors are really good at acting! The main ones I remember are Tobias Menzies’ biceps exulting as Achilles taunted Hector; Hattie Morahan looking alarmed and tall as Odysseus tried to reason with the Greeks; and Adjoa Andoh letting her voice roll and luxuriate in Agamemnon’s persuasive list of gifts. Oh yeah, you kept going, this is why!
And the Odyssey was even more fun; instead of lots of famous good actors walking up to a podium, reading their bit, and walking off again, the production went on a trip around London. Starting on the roof of the Almeida at a sharp 9am, cameras followed actors in cabs down to the Thames, where the reading got on a riverboat (Stephen Fewell winning and holding an early MVP of the day, for flawlessly managing an interruption by an uninformed official – which also led to his winning saddest tweet), and on to the London Eye on the South Bank (for the bit with the Cyclops – geddit, geddit), onto an open-topped bus back across the city, up to Islington Town Hall, over to a building site nearby, and finally to finish at a bar on Upper Street, at an extremely enviable-looking party with most of the day’s readers and general Almeida people.
I live in Islington and Islington Town Hall is where I became a citizen last year; at the last minute I decided to take the afternoon off to go to the public part of the reading there. I walked down from Highbury & Islington to find about ten people hanging around with purpose, and after a minute a proper queue formed.
The people behind me obviously had a lot of experience queueing for London theatre tickets, and were unhappy with the way this reading had been organised. At the Iliad, you could turn up early and park yourself in a seat, guaranteeing you could see the whole thing as long as you didn’t have to eg buy food or wee; for the Odyssey, you had to dash around London to queue for four separate public readings. “It was better last time – this time they basically don’t give a fuck,” a woman behind me said. (I will just say that every Almeida staff member I interacted with on Thursday was not only professional but almost aggressively helpful, to the point of recognising me having a cup of tea in the theatre bar and offering to walk me over to the last public bit of the reading. I couldn’t stay, but it was a really nice and unnecessary thing to do.) Some people in the queue were watching the livestream on their phones, although I couldn’t get the page to work on mine. After about an hour we were walked up into the council room, where an old man was sitting in the mayor’s chair, his shoulders and elbows making a triangle and his steepled hands making another. Oh hey – it’s Ian McKellen!!
Then we sat around awkwardly for about 20 minutes while everyone tried not to stare at SIR IAN SIR IAN SIR IAN. There was a slight delay to the 3:30pm start as the ‘Odyssey bus’ – a hired Routemaster with the destination showing as ‘Ithaca’ – was behind schedule. To fill the time, McKellen told us an affectionate luvvie story about Derek Jacobi, when the two ran into each other and found they were both recording audio versions of the Odyssey – different translations for different publishers – in London in the same week. ‘I don’t know how the sales were,’ McKellen finished, perfectly on time, ‘but I notice he’s not here today.’ Then the camera lights went red and he started his reading. I can’t remember the specifics: I was trying to sit up straight and look attentive and not visibly adjust my bra where the internet could see. The @AlmeidaOdyssey Twitter feed was being shown on a computer monitor at the front of the room, including Athena exhorting Telemachus to ‘go home, T-Bone’. Jessica Brown Findlay came up; she had a much shorter section than the others, and looked nervous, although she was one of my favourite readers of the afternoon. Around two hours into the council chamber reading, I realised I hadn’t eaten anything since an egg sandwich before work, and slipped out after Louise Brealey to get a quick dinner. I walked over to the Almeida bar, which was running the livestream with sound, and bumped (literally) into Rupert Goold as he walked his cycle over; I got a cup of tea and sat in front of the screen, and by what turned out to be the actors’ table. Three minutes after finishing in the livestream, they’d appear in person behind me and commiserate with their colleagues about their pronunciation of ‘Telemachus’. (“I think I did it three different ways!” “WE ALL DID.”)
What I love best about the Iliad and Odyssey readings was how the live readings, the video stream and the Twitter account were all given about equal weight – in fact, the latter two a little more for the Odyssey reading, as observed by the lady behind me in the queue. In the quick making-of video about the Iliad reading, Goold said part of the intention was to ‘look at what a community is… how liveness relates on digital platforms as well as in theatre’. And, like, I genuinely can’t wait to read the master’s thesis on live performance and digital community that talks about the @IliadLive and @AlmeidaOdyssey feeds. They were readable as performances on their own, as an accompaniment to the live reading (again – for the Odyssey reading, the feed was displayed on big screens behind the reader, making it part of the performance in the room, and part of the video capture), and also as a performance of 13-16 hours of someone being delighted and enthusiastic about the stories and readers.
They kept up a weapons cam:
ARROW CAM: Odysseus fires an arrow at Eurymachus. DAMAGE: It rips his heart, liver and nipple. He’s dead. And he broke a cup. #odyssey
— The Odyssey LIVE (@almeidaodyssey) November 12, 2015
They kept track of Achilles’ baneful wrath, O Goddess, that imposed/Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls losed/From breasts heroic, etc:
They made delightfully awful jokes in hashtags:
For me what was so appealing about the readings, and especially in the Twitter accounts, was the sort of cosy joy in sharing the story together. Not just enjoying hearing the poems told, or even the goofy jokes, but the gently evangelical pleasure of sharing the hearing with everyone else who has an account and is watching too. Gosh, it’s saying, isn’t it fun? Look, it’s Andrew Scott doing all the different voices, and those faces. Look, it’s Juliet Stevenson arguing with the recorded announcements on the London Eye. Look, it’s Rudi Dharmalingam walking BACKWARDS around London IN THE DARK, trying to keep his pages in hand while his hair goes all flappy. And they’re reading 2,800-year-old epic poetry! And it’s funny! And sad! Isn’t this great? Aren’t stories great?
Yes, actually, they’re pretty fucking wonderful. Let’s do it again sometime.