My Odyssey Journey

Over the past year, as part of the Theatre Nation Partnership, Sunderland Culture have been working with Sunderland Empire Theatre and the National Theatre to bring an exciting range of theatrical experiences to Sunderland. One remarkable project was our participation in the National Theatre’s Public Acts programme, where we contributed to a nationwide reimagining of Homer’s The Odyssey.

Staged in four locations across the country, including Sunderland, amateur performers and local groups took center stage, infusing local stories and histories into this classic tale. Our episode, ‘The Island of the Sun’, took place in April at The Fire Station, weaving a narrative of stormy seas, mythical monsters, and vengeful gods. Lindsay Rodden penned the script, Annie Rigby directed, and The Young’uns’ Sean Cooney provided the music.

The fifth and final episode graced the National Theatre’s stage in London, featuring community cast members from previous shows.

In this blog, Sunderland cast member Martin Wallwork shares his firsthand experience of this extraordinary project…


Author: Martin Wallwork

My Odyssey adventure began on a windswept, grey day back in September last year. What was I doing, heading off to meet a bunch of strangers on the beach at Roker to talk about a project involving a show – which hadn’t yet been written – about a mythical story none of us really knew much about? 

We learned ‘The Odyssey – Island of the Sun’ was to be performed at the Fire Station in April 2023 and it was to be set in a city by the sea – very much like Sunderland. And we would be one of four different venues in the UK involved in this adventure, before the final story in the Odyssey saga was staged in London later in the year. 

Disclaimer: I was among the more experienced cast members, having performed down the years in many productions, mainly at the Royalty here in Sunderland. I’ve done Shakespeare, panto and musicals, played heroes, villains and even an amorous cockerel – but many of my fellow cast members had never stepped foot on a stage in front of a paying audience. A good number were young people on the performing arts courses at Sunderland College, while several were local folk intrigued by the idea and hoping to tread the boards for the first time. 

And we were quite a varied bunch – our ages ranged from seven to 70 and while most of us were born and bred on Wearside, a fair number had arrived on these shores from other places. I am originally a Mancunian, who came to Sunderland to do a degree and never left, while others in the cast and creative team hailed from such diverse backgrounds as Leeds, Brighton, Nigeria and Rwanda. 

We started workshops in November, designed to assess the varied talents of our group of around 30 potential actors. It turned out that we all had different skills; some were excellent singers, some could play musical instruments, others were really good dancers. Some folk were a little reserved and came out of their shells cautiously, while others threw themselves into the process from the start with few inhibitions! 

As we moved towards the start of formal rehearsals, we were updated with various sections of the script, which would remain a work in progress right up to the week of performance. A professional singing coach came on board, quickly followed by a movement coach. We had several original songs in the show, plus a number of scenes which needed the cast to learn some choreography, as well as play the role of a sea monster with six heads. 

Throughout these early weeks, something special began to happen. We began the process largely as strangers, but as we acted, sang and danced together friendships began to form. Phone numbers were swapped, a WhatsApp group set up, social media accounts were liked and followed. And even if we couldn’t quite remember everyone’s name during the rehearsal warm-up, by now nobody was a stranger. 

This included our two professional cast members, Steve and Christina who came onboard in February and quickly blended in with our routines and banter. 

At the heart of all this controlled chaos was Annie Rigby, directing us all with unflagging enthusiasm and positivity, keeping up spirits and generating a wonderful, community feel to the whole process. And she was supported by a fantastic team, drawn from many different places including Sunderland Culture, the Empire Theatre and our partners from the National Theatre. 

By the end of April we were itching to put the whole show together and perform in front of family, friends and theatre-goers. We had an intense final few days, with dress rehearsals and technical run-throughs before we finally took to the stage on a Friday night.    

We got into our costumes, were fitted with radio microphones and told each other to ‘break a leg’ (never wish a thespian ‘good luck’ – it’s a theatre superstition). Then we waited for our musical cue, took our places…and The Odyssey was ready to set sail. 

All the hard work and planning thankfully paid off. Our audiences laughed, cheered and totally bought into the concept of the story of Odysseus and his crew being re-imagined for the present day, the saga brought to life by the residents of Threnacia – a place which looked ‘a little bit like Sunderland’. 

And on a personal note, I’ve never had so many people comment on a costume I was wearing – but I have to admit, my outfit as Poseidon the God of the Sea was actually rather magnificent, as you can see from the photo! 

As we celebrated on the last of our two nights, we were sad to say goodbye to all our new crewmates – but delighted that many of them would be taking part in the London production in a few months time, along with community cast members from the other cities and towns who staged their Odyssey story before ours.   

Since April many of us have continued to meet and see shows together at the Fire Station, Pop Recs and other venues. Several of the cast went to support our Sunderland College acting students in one of their end of term productions and thanks to the generosity of Sunderland Culture and National Theatre, around a dozen of us headed to London at the end of August to see our friends taking part in ‘The Underworld’, the final Odyssey production at the Olivier Theatre. 

Quite simply, the show was sensational. It made us laugh, it made us shed a tear or two and left us spellbound by the singing, the story-telling and the inventive staging. And we felt so proud to see the sheer enjoyment and total commitment on the faces of our Sunderland crewmates. They had rehearsed intensively throughout the summer and given so much of themselves to be part of this finale.  

Who knew that our first meet-up, on that windy day last September would lead us on such a wonderful, enjoyable journey? Thank you, Sunderland Culture and everyone else who made this possible – it’s been quite the adventure. 

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