Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Actress Imogen Stubbs on taking Homer's Odyssey to a tent on North Coast beaches

Actress and travel writer Imogen Stubbs tells Ivan Little why she's so excited to be taking to the beaches of Northern Ireland's stunning north coast for an all-female performance of Homer's Odyssey

Exciting times: Imogen Stubbs is looking forward to her visit
Exciting times: Imogen Stubbs is looking forward to her visit
Natasha McElhone
Maxine Peake

All the world's a stage, according to Shakespeare. But acclaimed English actress Imogen Stubbs, who's excelled in plays all over the world, admits that the Bard probably didn't have Portstewart Strand or Magilligan Beach in mind as he penned his famous speech for his classic As You Like It.

However, Imogen has no doubts it will be definitely as she likes it soon, when she gets the north coast sand between her toes performing in her most unusual ever theatrical locations later this month… in tents on the beaches.

And the actress, who's one of a huge number of instantly-recognisable stars coming over here to take part in the third Lughnasa FrielFest: Brian Friel International Festival, will be packing her swimming costume too.

"I am a fanatical swimmer. It's my idea of heaven and I'm told the two beaches hosting my festival events are really special. They'll probably have to drag me out of the water to do my readings," says Imogen, who is thrilled at the prospect of being part of the only all-female team ever to tackle Homer's Odyssey, which was one of Friel's favourite literary pieces.

"I'm at a period of my life where things like this really interest me," says Imogen, who's 57 and a veteran of plays, TV series and movies.

"I've done a lot of work in traditional theatres, but the FrielFest is an extraordinarily-ambitious project with a remarkable amount of heart and ambition.

"I think it's fascinating to use site-specific venues like beaches to re-awaken and re-invigorate plays in a different context, drawing a whole new audience."

Sign In

Portstewart Strand
Portstewart Strand

The Friel festival is only half of the ambitious Arts Over Borders initiative running over three weeks this month. The sixth Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival honours writer Samuel Beckett in Fermanagh - where he was educated.

The veritable galaxy of stars from theatre and TV who've been attracted to the two cross-border festivals includes Natasha McElhone, Maxine Peake, Tamsin Greig and Enniskillen's own Adrian Dunbar - plus Jamie Lee O'Donnell and Ian McElhinney, from Derry Girls.

The performers will be celebrating their respective writers' works in quirky site-specific locations, including a police station, underground caves, an island on a lake, Derry's Walls, village halls, a crypt, a roadside, a pier and, of course, beaches.

Adrian Dunbar
Adrian Dunbar

Along with Natasha, Maxine and Frances Barber, Imogen will read passages from Emily Wilson's new translation of the Odyssey - the first by a woman - on nine beaches spanning the Atlantic coast in Donegal and in Northern Ireland.

Enhancing the mood, Greek food will also be served as live Greek music is played.

The Homer classics were read in 800BC by a man and that's the way it has always been - until now, with the stellar women breaking the mould.

It will be an exciting journey into the unknown for most of them.

Imogen says: "I've just received the passages that I will be reading and the translations are fantastic. I don't know yet if the tent I will be in will be a teepee or a boy scout one, though it might be a bit bigger than that.

"Who knows, there could be a storm and the marquee could blow away or nobody might be able to hear me with the wind. And maybe the tide will come in. We shall see. Everything affects the reading and that makes it a lovely challenge."

The fact that there'll be performances on both sides of the border - the last festivals in a pre-Brexit environment - is another major plus for Imogen, who says: "The idea that the arts are above borders and boundaries is tremendous and the Odyssey has new meaning nowadays, taking in the themes of migration and kinship.

"For me, my participation in the festival is not about money. It's about a belief that the arts can be in some way transformative. I know they've celebrated Seamus Heaney and Samuel Beckett before and along with Brian Friel, they are all really quite incredible writers.

"And if the Odyssey meant so much to Brian Friel, that's another reason why I want to read it. It's tremendous that so many English actors like me are getting the chance to be involved in such important Irish projects. I look on it as a real privilege to be honouring so many gifted Irish writers.

"In England, we are running out of people to celebrate. We have Shakespeare, David Attenborough and Judi Dench and that's about it, but in Ireland, it's fantastic to see people paying homage to so many literary figures that you are proud of.

"It's about using the arts as a way of transcending the memories of other things, transcending the reputation of something which is steeped in a sense of trouble."

The Odyssey, which is about the struggle of Odysseus to return home after the Trojan War, is among the oldest surviving works of Western literature and it is usually paired with the Iliad, an ancient Greek poem, which is traditionally attributed to Homer.

Part of the Iliad, which is set during the actual period of the Trojan War, is to be read in Irish, Greek and English by Belfast actor Niall Cusack on and around Derry's Walls, which Imogen says makes it even more relevant, given the nature of the sieges of that city and of Troy.

Somewhat coincidentally, Imogen was in Greece when the invite to the north coast came. She recalls: "I was sitting on a Greek island and even before I heard any real details or established if anyone would come to see me, I said 'yes'.

"I find the whole thing wonderfully inspiring.

"The audiences will be as challenged as the actors. It's going to be a very different experience from sitting in the dark in a theatre in uncomfortable seats and queuing for the loo at the interval and then if you're lucky getting a glass of repellent wine at vast expense.

"My only regret is that I mightn't get to see, or even meet, many of the other actresses involved in the Odyssey project. We are all performing at different times - and in different places."

Imogen has only been to Northern Ireland on a couple of occasions, to do radio and to act in the Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey eight years ago.

She says her friend, the Shameless actor David Threlfall, is a great ambassador for the province, having been here regularly to record a BBC radio series.

"He loves the place," says Imogen, who is more familiar with the Republic, having gone there regularly as a child.

Nowadays, as well as acting, Imogen is something of a globetrotter, wearing another hat as a travel writer.

"I've been all over the world to write about destinations like Alaska, Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan and China that really interest me. But I haven't travelled enough within the British Isles. After Brexit, of course, we mightn't be able to go anywhere else," she says.

Imogen admits she currently isn't as enthralled with the acting profession as she once was.

"To be honest, other than projects like the Irish festivals, which will take up a couple of days, it's life that interests me more now than theatre," she says.

"Not being pretentious, I am quite happy being me and I don't need to pretend to be somebody else. I've just been in a play, where I was doing eight shows over six days a week. That is really fun when you are younger. But I don't really want to be losing six days a week, where I can't go anywhere else or do anything else.

"I still have the same energy that I have always had, but I realise as I get older that you really should do the things that you enjoy and travelling is my passion.

"I've asked myself if I want to be in a hot theatre for six nights in London, going on my moped through all the smog and traffic with people getting road rage and talking about Brexit all the time, or if I want to immerse myself underwater in some beautiful place and bob around eating olives."

The answer for Imogen, who has also worked as a commissioning editor and adventure writer for Reader's Digest, is clearly a no-brainer. The daughter of a naval officer, Imogen and her family once lived on a vintage barge on the Thames and her life has turned full circle because she now resides on a houseboat on the same river.

She and her former husband, Sir Trevor Nunn, the renowned English theatre director who had a highly-publicised affair with Italian Nancy Dell'Olio in 2011, have two children together, a son called Jesse and a daughter, Ellie, who is also an actress.

Her actor/writer partner Jonathan Guy Lewis, who's best known for the TV series London's Burning and Soldier, Soldier, is currently directing a play with a military background at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

It's an updated version of his award-winning 1993 play, Our Boys, which was based on his own experiences of spending time in a military hospital after being invalided out of the Army with a rare back injury.

"I know he would enjoy what will be happening during the festivals in Ireland. And I think the audiences will have experiences that they won't forget," Imogen says.

"If someone asks them if they watched a programme like Love Island on the telly the night before, they can say, 'No, I went and heard a bit of the Odyssey on a beach and then ate with strangers and we all had a great time'."

For more details of the Friel and Beckett festivals. go to

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph