“This Iliad is forcefully staged and has the vehemence and colour of its core story.”
Mark Thomson’s last production as Artistic Director of the Lyceum for the past 13 years.
It is unsurprising that there’s plague about. There are no zips on the body bags on this beachhead and the Scamander River is full to overflowing with the dead. There’s Achilles’ refusal to dispose of Patroclus’s corpse until after he has killed Hector and then there’s the desecration of Hector’s body by lashing it to a chariot and dragging it through the dirt for twelve days, face down. No wonder – actually, yes, a lot of wonder is required – that Apollo took pity and ‘round him … wrapped the golden shield of storm so his skin would never rip’. Some say it was rose oil.
As epic tales go The Iliad is still the catchy, highly contagious one. It has tragic, raging action, love and sex, heroes and honour. There are no villains to speak of, just the ‘terrible beauty’ of Helen and the ‘smooth, full breasts’ of Aphrodite to sing of. Communicable? Certainly. Containable? Hardly.
Fearless Mark Thomson takes writer Chris Hannan’s evocative script and directs an intrepid cast of twelve. Karen Tennent’s imposing set has broken columns and half pediments left and right with plenty of space and height for gods to take it easy in and for the Trojan women to look out anxiously over the ramparts. A massive wall of corrugated ‘bronze’ curves around them and the dust sometimes hangs in the air around a leather cuirass and plumed, hollow eyed helmet. The lighting design by Simon Wilkinson is as careful and as atmospheric as his work in Bondagers.
But there are 15,693 hexameter lines in Homer’s Iliad and probably as many ‘brazen spear points’ and slamming shields. What to do with them all? Thomson – to make an attractive prosaic point – starts his theatrical shebang with a baby’s cry and a cobbler hitting nails into a boot. (Think the traditional 3 knocks that alert a French audience to the start of a performance). More formally, several scenes begin and end as characters are dressed for their part, accompanied by near liturgical chant. No need though for Zeus (Richard Conlan) to dress up. His boxers and loose robe are as much Mustique as Olympus. Hephaestus (Daniel Poyser) has his iPad on the beach. ‘White-armed’ Hera (Emmanuella Cole) drifts in straight off Ebony magazine’s style pages and tells all. This is one all-mighty queen god who seems to owe her name to having had it up-to-here with her philandering husband (and brother BTW). We’re with you there, sister.
I worship Thetis, because of passionate playing from Melody Grove, but otherwise these gods are the diverting side-show and narrative markers to the centre stage profiling of Achilles (Ben Turner). He stands, blood streaked, against all-comers, starting with ‘wine-mouth’ Agamemnon (Ron Donachie). There is pathos in the fine scene between the moping and vengeful Achilles and the shade of his beloved Patroclus (Mark Holgate) and the song at his companion’s funeral of his ‘head like a poppy drooping’ is an unlikely hit, but it’s Thetis’s son vs. Hector (Benjamin Dilloway) that exercises fight director Raymond Short to his utmost. As well it might when he’s up against Brad Pitt and CGI – and a younger audience. Perhaps pounding Hector’s brains out is beyond even a screenplay.
This Iliad is forcefully staged and has the vehemence and colour of its core story. It is fiercely directed and there is a heart and soul to every performance, mortal or immortal, but it is so down to earth that it puts gods into deckchairs on a flyblown lido and so the topless towers of Ilium are levelled. I think it’s Hecuba (Jennifer Black) who says, ‘You clutch at emotions like clutching at straws’. That’s the problem when you go head-to-head with Homer.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 26 April)
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