Originally commissioned for Live Theatre twelve years ago, Shelagh Stephenson’s A Northern Odyssey adapts well to the People’s Theatre in the way no-one else could do it.
I confess, I missed Shelagh Stephenson’s A Northern Odyssey the first time round. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, this was before I’d got familiar with works such as The Memory of Water and Five Kinds of Silence and realised how good a writer she was – and secondly, this was at a time when I was being deluged with identi-kit “local” plays with the laziest of north-east references. However, this one went down very well and I wished I had caught it. So I was keen to take the opportunity to catch up on this, but also see what the People’s Theatre can do with this.
Unlike the aforementioned plays, where Stephenson had full creative license to do what she liked, this is about a real character, Winslow Homer, considered by many one of the greatest American painters. (Not to be confused with his Ancient Greek namesake to wrote a book called The Odyssey – thanks Shelagh for making that so simple.) We know he spent two years in Cullercoats, back when it was a fishing town in its own right rather than an area of a conurbation in North Tyneside; something that many art historians considered a step change in his work. Although most of the characters in this story are fictitious, we do know it happened at a time when seeing the world – or even a different part of your own country – was consider a niche pursuit and many people lived their whole lives in the same town down what they always do.
Where Stephenson can put her imagination to work is Homer’s personal life. Not that much is known, but he never married. One possible reason was that Homer was gay. That scenario is explored in the play, although it never firmly comes down on one side of the fence. What is without doubt, however, is that the 19th century is not a good time to be openly gay, or even secretly gay, and it was common for gay men to marry women and have children to fit in with society’s expectations. And the consequences of this were often tragic.Continue reading