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When Nobody Returns

Theatre writing

When Nobody Returns

a new play using Homer's Odyssey as its starting point.

'Excellent'  'Crystalline'  'Riveting'

The play, a companion piece to
This Flesh is Mine, was commissioned by Border Crossings.
An early draft of the play was given a rehearsed reading at Salisbury Playhouse in October 2015.

It is not an adaptation of The Odyssey, but rather a dramatised response to it - similar to the relationship between This Flesh is Mine and The Iliad.

The play premiered at Acklam Market Theatre, off Portobello Road as part of the Nour Festival 2016 i
n a co-production between Border Crossings and Ashtar Theatre, of Ramallah, Palestine.  It opened on 22nd October 2016 and ran in repertory with This Flesh is Mine between 22nd October and 6th November.



"An excellent production. With impressive performances and an ingeniously used set design, When Nobody Returns is a sharp and tragic look at the damage that war does, not only to the soldier but to his family as well... It will not fail to touch the heart." (London Theatre ****)

In When Nobody Returns, "Woolland exposes some stark contemporary resonances, focusing on Odysseus as a veteran of a particularly horrifying war and his son Telemachus as a boy heading for manhood, reared on fantastical stories of his father the hero... The play cuts effortlessly to the quick of this legendary story and steeps it in the politics and the psychology of today... Although The Odyssey can often seem unfathomable, Woolland extracts a theme and he cleans and clarifies it. He unpacks what it means to be a hero in a war, what it means to be a family still divided by that war long after it has ended. It's a thoughtful, crystalline take on one of the oldest and most famous stories in the world, an adaptation that finds, in an ancient story of gods and legends, the poem's latent humanity."  The Stage.

"A poignant reimagining of a Greek myth for today's Middle East." (
Time Out)

"When Nobody Returns is a powerful but tragic insight into the aftermath of a war and the resilience of people who have been displaced or are living under occupation. It creates an impressive parallel between Homer’s world and the Middle East today and will certainly touch the hearts of those who are aware of the current refugee crisis." Middle East Monitor

"A riveting performance of poise and emotion.... theatre of the highest quality." (


It stretches before me
as touchable as a scorpion, a bird, a well;
visible as a field of chalk,
as the prints of shoes.
I asked myself, what is so special about it
Except that we have lost it?
It is a land, like any land.

Mourid Barghouti
'I Saw Ramallah'

You thought it was tough getting through the war. Now, see if you can get through the nostos – the homecoming.

Charlotte Higgins

Must you have battle in your heart forever?
The bloody toil of combat?
The Odyssey.  Book 12. lines 132-3  Trans. Robert Fitzgerald

For all the terrible things he has done to others, Odysseus emerges not as a monster, but as human like ourselves.  
The Odyssey shows us ugly deformities of character that trauma can cause, but these deformities are fully human such as might happen to ourselves, and in fact did happen to many veterans…

Jonathan Shay
'Odysseus in America'


Extract from Brian's programme notes
When Michael Walling asked me to write a companion piece to This Flesh is Mine, based on The Odyssey, I felt honoured and privileged, but initially daunted by the sheer scale of the task.  My way past this feeling of intimidation was to remind myself of the collaborative nature of the process.   I would be writing for a cast I knew and greatly admired, and from the outset I planned a series of preliminary workshops which would hopefully open up the material not only for the workshop participants but also for myself.  My previous knowledge of The Odyssey had been through modern retellings rather than direct contact with Homer’s poem.  This relative ignorance turned out to be a gift because it meant I could approach the text as a naïve reader.

What I expected was the classical equivalent of vast, sprawling Mediterranean road-movie.  What I discovered came as quite a surprise.  Odysseus doesn’t appear in the first four books of The Odyssey.  He’s referred to, but Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, and Telémakhos, his son, are the central characters in that substantial opening section.  Telémakhos is twenty years old, the same age his father was when he left home to fight in the Trojan War. He’s a young man living with his mother, Penelope, who is effectively a single parent.  Penelope and Telémakhos hear stories told about Odysseus, but they don’t know the truth, or otherwise, of what they hear.  

The second thing that struck me was that all the ‘episodes’ (those Odyssean adventures and temptations which many people think of as The Odyssey) are stories that are either told about Odysseus or told by Odysseus himself to justify his long absence.  None of the episodes happen in ‘real time’.  They emerge through a series of stories nesting within stories, most of them told by unreliable narrators who always have an agenda in the telling.  And while Penelope waits for Odysseus’ return, she’s besieged by suitors, who are becoming increasingly impatient.  The occupation of Ithaka is what’s happening in ‘real time’.

What became apparent from the workshops with young people, many of whom were from military families, was that Odysseus can’t return home until he has come to terms with a sense of guilt for the atrocities that he’s been part of.  One of the young people put it like this: ‘He doesn't want to bring the war back to his family.’

In July 2015, I ran a fortnight of workshops with teachers (many of them Palestinian) at the
Qattan Foundation Summer School (Video from 36.07) in Jerash, Jordan. Everyone involved in those workshops brought insights and attitudes to the material I had not encountered in the UK, and proved invaluable in developing the play. Unsurprisingly, they were very engaged with exploring the issue of occupation.  What I had not expected was what a powerful stimulus they would find in the Telémakhos/Penelope situation.  I hadn’t realised how many young men in Palestine grow up with stories told about their absent fathers.  Some of these stories are true, some are wild exaggerations, and some are simply lies.  But whatever the status of the stories, they have profound effects on the listeners…

Odysseus is renowned for his cunning, but he is also dangerous; a danger to others, and ultimately a danger to himself.  The Odysseus we are striving to create in When Nobody Returns is a character who has been traumatised and profoundly destabilised by the experience of war, a man who yearns for home, but is terrified he won’t be able to cope with domesticity; who is desperate to be reunited with his wife and son, but riddled with self-doubt and fearful that his very presence will destroy them.

September 2016

When Nobody Returns
Review in NATD Journal by Guy Williams

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