An Iliad
7:30pm, Wed 5 Mar 2014
For no particular reason, An Iliad wasn’t high on my list of priorities when booking Festival tickets… yet my (relatively) last-minute planning decision still yielded a remarkably good seat, and the grapevine was bubbling with praise after the opening-night performance. Needless to say, I was looking forward to see what this production would deliver… even if my knowledge of Homer‘s Iliad was shaky, at best.
Co-creators of An Iliad, Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, were driven to explore theatrical texts around war after the US invaded Iraq in 2003; eventually they arrived at Iliad, deriving this production from Homer’s text – and rolling in modern influences. O’Hare plays The Poet, who (as the programme points out) is doomed to continually tell the story of the Trojan War until the human race loses its
fascination with addiction to war. It’s performed largely as a solo piece, though double-bassist (and occasional percussionist) Brian Ellingsen (listed in the programme as “Ellingson” – oops) is also onstage much of the time, underpinning and punctuating O’Hare’s narration.
The Poet initially appears a sozzled bum, gruff and perfunctory in dress and presentation, on a darkened stage bereft of scenery, and initially leads into the tale of the Trojan War with a weary reluctance… but, once the text livens up with the cut and thrust of battles both political and physical, O’Hare starts roaming the stage with a presence that is extraordinary: every character has their own voice, their own physicality. The text is packed with sideways glances to modern events, and The Poet is unafraid to take the piss out of everyone; there’s a glorious moment where he compares a ten-year war to waiting in line at the supermarket, only to discover the other line is moving faster. You could change lines, but that would mean accepting the time wasted in your queue… The wink and nod is not necessary for such an overt political statement.
For some reason, An Iliad evoked memories of last year’s production of Beowulf by BBB – though I can’t quite put a finger on why. I don’t think it was in response to the obvious deconstruction of their source material (An Iliad felt very much like a response to Homer’s play, rather than an interpretation of it), and it couldn’t be the staging – the two are like chalk and cheese, with director Lisa Peterson keeping the stage largely empty, as opposed to the constant visual hubbub and surprises of BBB’s efforts.
And, stranger still, O’Hare’s performance also caused me to reflect on Stephen Dillane’s one-man Macbeth in 2006. This felt more explainable, though: (largely) solo performances of epic pieces of literature featuring tremendous stage presence. But whilst Dillane’s piece left me feeling a little empty inside, O’Hare manages to conjure a performance that was technically articulate, poignant, and entertaining… and that finale! The closeout is magnificent theatre: as a spotlight closes in around The Poet, he starts listing off the conflicts that have consumed mankind ever since the Trojan Wars. The light tightens and grows weaker, the names become more familiar, leading to current battles… then darkness.
To be honest, I can’t justify why I didn’t leap to my feet at the end of this performance to deliver An Iliad the standing-O that hindsight tells me it deserved. Because it was one of those memorable performances whose only distraction was the Squeaky Row of seats in the Playhouse… yes, we’ve all been stuck there at one time or another, but there was no need for this evening’s “lucky” patrons to rock back and forth in celebration (especially during the quieter moments).
— Pete Muller (@festivalfreakAU) March 5, 2014