Getting The Scoop on London’s Free Open Air Theatre Season

Director Phil Willmott talks to Matthew Amer about The Odyssey and bringing free theatre to City Hall for the past 15 years.

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London’s City Hall may be accustomed to high drama, but this summer is about to get even more dramatic. From 9 August, every Wednesday to Sunday evening until 3 September you can see Greek epic The Odyssey for free at The Scoop, the open air amphitheatre next to the Mayor’s office.

With sea monsters, romance, magic, fights, sirens, gods and even a cyclops, The Odyssey has it all. So much so, in fact, that it is being staged in three one-hour parts. It begins with the most family-friendly section, before turning darker as the sun goes down.

This is not the first time Greek tales have been staged at The Scoop. The free open air theatre season began 15 years ago with ancient Greek plays.

Phil Willmott is the director whose idea sparked the first season and who continues to run it a decade and a half later. He tells us more:

The Odyssey at The Scoop
The Odyssey at The Scoop

How did free theatre at The Scoop first come about?

Late one night I was walking home along the river. Attached to the recently completed City Hall was an oval performance space surrounded by tiered steps. It looked beautiful in the moonlight and I imagined how wonderful it would be to put on plays there.

I dreamt of staging the very best productions of classic texts that I could manage. And that they would be free to watch. People would take a chance and drop by, people who’d never imagined they’d enjoy a play. We would all sit together and experience some of the greatest drama ever written in bold, simple productions.

Luckily, when I called More London, where The Scoop and surrounding buildings are located, I discovered that this was very much the ethos they had in mind for the site.

Why have ancient Greek stories proved so popular at The Scoop?

The Scoop is London’s most democratic and inclusive venue. On a fine summer night it’s not unusual to find 800 people crammed in here. For many people it’s their first experience of sitting in an audience. That calls for an epic tale, and it’s exactly the amphitheatre audience the ancient Greeks were writing for.

Why stage The Odyssey this year?

I’d never actually read it. When I did, it was love at first sight. I couldn’t believe how quickly I got sucked in and became as absorbed by it as by anything in, say, Game Of Thrones (which I love).

Have you modernised it?

In feel, barely at all. I used to set everything here in modern dress to match the architecture, but I’ve come to think it’s unnecessary. This year we start with period costume, at least as we’ve come to understand it, then as the evening and the themes get darker we’ve butched things up a bit.

The Odyssey is a long story. How did you decide what to leave out?

That was relatively easy. There’s a lot of recalling and philosophising around the events of the Trojan War. I felt okay about stripping all that right back. The original is also a hymn to roasting meat. Pretty much every encounter and incident starts or ends with a detailed description of roast meat. There’s even recipes. This must have been a real turn on for the original listeners but it doesn’t speak as directly to us. So I dispensed with the many culinary passages. What remained pretty much fitted into the three hours I had to tell the story.

How does the story darken over the course of the evening?

That was a choice I made. We start for younger audiences with the adventure stuff – monsters, storms and spells. The second play deals with the inherent sexuality of the story, as Odysseus sleeps and seduces his way home. And in play three you get the violence and redemption. I organised it into three hour-long episodes, with breaks in between, as it’s a format many non-theatregoers will be comfortable with from watching box sets of TV drama.

You’ve been at The Scoop for 15 years. Have there been any particular highlights?

I always enjoy the after-show Q&As after Thursday night performances, and hearing what the audience think. The encounters with hostile local kids are particularly special. I love it when they start to watch in spite of themselves. Then two hours later they’ve watched, say, Agamemnon and they want to talk about it. The kids who came down to nick our phones and hurl abuse in the early years are now coming back with their own children!

But as twilight gathers and the drama grips the audience it’s always pretty special here.

The Odyssey runs at The Scoop from 9 August to 3 September. And it’s absolutely FREE.