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New Zealand Festival 2014
By Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson
Based on Homer’s Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Performed by Denis O’Hare
Produced in Association with ArKtype/Thomas O. Kriegsmann

at Opera House, Wellington
From 12 Mar 2014 to 14 Mar 2014
[1hr 30mins (no interval)]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 13 Mar 2014

I almost resent having to spend more time in the world of An Iliad, in order to write this review. That's not to say it's not a powerful, salutary and important piece of theatre. It's all of that, thanks to an astonishing solo performance with excellent musical and technical support. But it reminds us what a decadent bunch of warmongering arseholes so-called humanity has always been – and still is. And I am resistant to truths that make me feel powerless.  

The Opera House stage is stripped to its side and back walls, and littered with aluminium boxes for stage lights and sound equipment. One working light on a stand stares out at us like a Cyclops eye. There's a table and chair amid the mess too. Yup, we're in a theatre all right; no pretending otherwise.

An impactful opening discovers a shabby old guy seated upstage, bent over and reciting something in Greek: Homer's Iliad, no doubt. It sounds like a routine prayer. His ‘bumbling bum' look reminds me of that shabby TV detective of yesteryear, Colombo, and the theatrical conceit is the same: can we really believe this guy – as personified by Denis O'Hare – will deliver us the epic theatre we've come for?  

Of course shabby old soothsayers who are compelled to tell us truths we don't want to hear are a crucial element of Greek tragedy. And it's not as if this one wants the role; as in the classics, he's condemned to it. “Every time I sing this song,” he tells us (in English, well American, now), “I hope it's the last time.”  Fat chance.

‘The Poet', as he's called in the programme, evokes the idea of yarning in pubs as he launches into a version of the Trojan Wars story, as co-authored by O'Hare and his director Lisa Peterson, based on a Robert Fagles translation of Homer's Iliad. He asks us to recall who captained the Greek ships, someone manages, “Agamemnon,” and so the epic tale begins.

To bring it closer to home he asks us to imagine soldiers enlisting from countless small towns in New Zealand and Australia. It's an honour that he has taken the trouble to memorise these and endearing as he tries to pronounce them. We're talking hundreds of thousands of men who leave their homes, families, land and jobs for nine years; some doomed to never return, others to confront changes that will make them wonder what the hell they were fighting for and whether anyone has won.

Of course powerful forces we feel are beyond our understanding or control, yet somehow control our destinies, were personified as gods in ancient times. Mere mortals were their playthings and they – through their poets – were given to finding logical reasons, deep meanings and moral lessons in their mythologizing of what would otherwise be random events. (“It was meant to be,” we say to this day, as we struggle to find order in chaos.)  

Drink takes its accustomed place as the Poet's refuge, and ours. And a double bassist – Brian Ellingsen – appears dramatically, not so much in the ‘gods' as in the upper box beside the stage, to punctuate, embellish, counterpoint and ‘converse' with the Poet and his story.

The appalling loss of life with its attendant plagues and cremating fires are graphically described. Yet the Poet struggles on to find stature, nobility and some kind of heroic greatness in the actions of the mortal enemies: Achilles captaining the Greek side against Hector's Tojan team. Plus the brothers and sisters, the wives and mothers, the children … Those who know their Greek classics recognise the names; those who don't get the picture.

As the epic battles are given their due I can't help thinking of the now forgotten foot-soldiers; the ‘collateral' casualties in the battles of egos. The pride, the hubris, the anger, the vengeance, the final futility of it all… In the midst of all that, do I really give a shit about the size of Achilles' spear or shield? And of course that's the point.

The most devastating moment is when he reels off the names of the wars that have been waged from antiquity to the present day. It is a very, very, very long list (a massive feat of memory for the actor) and given it doesn't include the inter-tribal and post-colonial wars of Aotearoa New Zealand, we have to assume there are many others that could be added.

After that I feel even less inclined to weigh up the pros and cons, the rights and wrongs and the Trojan Wars; to conclude who were the goodies, baddies, aggressors and victims … We are all the losers; nobody wins. There is nothing noble or heroic about war. Unwilling and unable to carry on about the sacking of Troy, the Poet's pissed off and so am I. And of course that's the point.

It's an interesting exercise, in the end, separating my response to the content from my appreciation of the theatrical arts that have brought home this unwelcome yet essential truth. But O'Hare's physical and vocal skills, his ability to draw us in and engage us fully despite the Poet's ambivalence, and the alchemy with which he, Lisa Patterson and Brian Esslington bring it all together – abetted by a hidden team of lighting and sound designers and engineers who embellish the story with overdoing it – must be honoured.
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