The Changing of the Guard is a Classical epic turned inside out. A new play by Shomit Dutta, it imagines what might have happened when Odysseus broke into Troy, disguised as a beggar. Originally an episode mentioned only obliquely by Helen in Book IV of the Odyssey, Dutta has expanded it to be a sometimes poignant, and always witty, meditation on fate and human agency. This week saw its premiere at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre, directed by Iqbal Khan. Given that the cast had only a week of rehearsals, the quality of production and performance was remarkable. Unfortunately it did mean that the play was rendered without its final act, but in many ways I felt that this contributed to its overall effect. In the format presented last Wednesday, The Changing of the Guard was a delightful and unexpectedly quirky take on both the Odyssey itself, and the tradition of epic narrative from which it stems.
The play runs in two parallel worlds, alternating between the lives of Paris and Helen, and the men who guard their palace. Rather than retell the familiar story of the face that launched a thousand ships, Dutta hones in on the human impact of the events of these tales. As Mary Higgins, playing Helen, remarked after the show: ‘You don’t go through the kinds of things Helen did in her childhood and come out of it without issues. In many ways, she’s very messed up.’ Dutta writes Helen in a distinctly flawed and personable light, whilst simultaneously illuminating the lives of those usually forgotten by the epics — the foot soldiers, servants, and slaves. All the “epic”, in the traditional sense, is extracted from the play altogether. The heroic deaths — Achilles, Hector, Ajax — are merely referenced. These are events that hail from the hallowed halls of myth. What is more important here is how they impact on the lives of others. This focus on the ordinary individual is emphasised by Dutta’s concentration on the distinctly mundane — the two soldiers around whom the story revolves often leave the stage to relieve themselves. This is not just a plot device to get the two off the stage so Odysseus can pass unnoticed. It’s part of a larger resituating of the epic’s perspective — when in the Odyssey did Achilles ever pause for a bathroom break?
Yash Saraf and Joshua Dolphin as Sergeant Gobb and Captain Sharp, respectively, gave utterly electric performances. Constantly playing off each other, they would not have looked out of place on a professional stage, often giving the impression of an easy improvisation. Dolphin was perfectly cast as the family-focused, down-to-earth soldier, and Saraf as his acerbically sarcastic counterpart, frustrated by the lack of intellectual stimulation provided by his job. He was no doubt helped by having some of the best lines of the play, but these could easily have fallen flat had they not been delivered with an astute sense of comic timing. A couple of his lines took a moment to sink in, and he always waited for the audience to get the joke, seeming to enjoy watching them catch up with his character. Aside from the odd innuendo too many, the only parts that seemed out of place were Gobb’s moments of heavy-handed philosophizing. Although clearly intended to add depth to his character, presenting him as a multi-faceted and curious mind, these distinctly slowed the pace of the scenes. While they were punctuated by entertaining one-liners that poked fun at such pontification in itself (‘What if a chicken is just an egg’s way of producing another egg?’), I felt that Gobb’s character would have had more subtlety had these lines been omitted.
On the whole, the men fared better than their female counterparts, but it was unclear how much of this was down to the acting and direction, and how much to the script. The role of the moralising Greek chorus was dispensed with, leaving the commentary to the music, composed by Leo Munby. The opening (male) scene was cleverly crafted, counterpointing actions and score in a completely unexpected musical idiom to create a complete farce. Cassandra’s (Georgia Bruce’s) musical treatment was much less nuanced, however. She is asked what it is like to lead the life of a seer, and her response was underscored in a way that rendered her words (literally) melodramatic rather than heartfelt. Furthermore, Dutta writes of Helen that ‘rather than objectifying her … I (try to) subordinate her appearance and beauty to her sound (both words and voice) and her love of language.’ And yet, within a very short space of time, Helen stood naked on the stage, her body unrelentingly foregrounded. Mary Higgins made an entertaining Helen, but some of the sexual abuse issues raised by her character seemed only superficially treated by the script. It may be that the unpresented final act gave this necessary time and space, but in the material presented the play seemed more comfortable in its portrayals of masculinity than femininity.
This imbalance was brought up in a question and answer session after the show, where one audience member asked how Dutta had felt about female agency in the play, or lack thereof. However, a lack of agency was the one aspect that was universal to all characters in the play. Dutta consistently played with the idea of fate, leaving major decisions to the role of a dice, or a hand of cards. It was this that made the impromptu ending so convincing, its utter futility adding an unexpected depth to the play’s conclusion. In a way, a final act that tied together all the loose ends might have been counter-productive. One of the things I always loved the most about the Greek epics was the idea of humans being subject to the whims of selfish and vindictive gods, that our fate was just a game to them. Dutta captured this idea perfectly, replacing gods with a void — humans are quite capable of playing their own, pointless games. This play may be imperfect in places, but it is a welcome adaptation of a well-worn tradition, managing to include unobtrusive nods to tradition whilst remaining funny, contemporary, and quietly challenging.
For future performances at the O’Reilly, please visit their website.