Review: Octopolis (Hampstead Downstairs)

Marek Horn’s new play, Octopolis, is a bit of a headscratcher, and one which is so meta and clever it is in danger of crushing itself in its own tentacles.

Consider the playtext’s ‘note on the staging’, which advises “in The Past the dialogue is not embodied. Think about the relationship between what they are saying and what they are doing. In A Future, the dialogue is fully embodied, to the extent that it is not even spoken or, indeed, written.”

However, it is a romantic comedy with some originality (and a lot of interludes for bad dancing and Bowie songs) in which the performances bravely tackle material which is both scientific and preposterous.

Production photo for Octopolis

Professor George Grey (Jemma Redgrave) is mourning the loss of her fellow researcher and husband, John, while living in amicable social squalor with an octopus they called Frances and trained to change colour as prompted.

One morning, she finds Dr Harry Giscard (Ewen Miller) making tea in her kitchen and an intriguing, even fastidious take on the traditional meet cute is set in motion.

George and Frances are to form part of an anthropological study, one of co-dependence and the superiority (or not) of the human mind.

Horn offers much narration on what the characters are doing when they are not doing it – an interminable ‘yoga’ scene slows the pace right down – but then forgets that conceit part way through the 100 minute play.

Production photo for Octopolis

Far more interesting is Anisha Fields’s set, with one wall dominated by a lightbox standing for the tank in which Frances is confined.

Lit by Jamie Platt, this represents the presence of the octopus, the relationship between the trio, and the sense of watching and being watched by capturing the actors’ reflections.

There is love, grief, and antagonism in Octopolis, and yet it is hard to empthasise, understand, or care about George or Harry.

Why does she awear so much, and then stop? Why does he have to have French heritage? And does it matter whether or not an octopus has a soul?

Director Ed Madden has a feel for the oddness and obtuseness of the material but indulges the text too much at the expense of audience engagement.

Production photo for Octopolis

Redgrave is touching as the bereaved academic, but her character has little resolution. I enjoyed her pieces about the octopus and the possible religious significance of Bowie, but these are slim pickings elsewhere.

Miller has the task of being both interloper into George’s lonely wirkd and interpreter for the audience. His performance is brash yet focused, whether flirting over the catching of razor clams or connecting with a live rendition of “Let’s Dance.”

Octopolis is a piece that has a lot to say but may need to step back from being so experimental and focus instead on storytelling and character development.

However, it does offer something different and challenging on a small stage, so it is worth going to watch.

You can see Octopolis at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until 28 Oct with tickets here.


Image credit: The Other Richard