BWW Reviews: ADELAIDE FRINGE 2014: AN ILIAD Takes Us to War with Remarkable Clarity and Presence

Reviewed Tuesday 4th March 2014

The Iliad, attributed to Homer, is the story of the Trojan Wars, a ten year siege of the city of Troy (Ilion, or Ilium) by the Greek armies. It focuses on the last few weeks of the war and the conflict between King Agamemnon and Achilles, but is full of references to the years that went before, to gods and deities, to predictions of the oracles and more.

The theatre company, Homer's Coat, founded by actor, Denis O'Hare, and director, Lisa Peterson, have trimmed down the original epic poem and concentrated particularly on the relationships and conflicts in An Iliad of the two opposing warriors: the Greek, Achilles, and the Trojan, Hector. They have drawn on the 1990 translation by Robert Fagles as the foundation for this work.

The aural tradition that carried the tales across time before the stories were written down leads to the concept of a single narrator, referred to as The Poet. He begins by talking of singing the histories, referring to the Iliad also being known as either Song of Ilion, or Song of Ilium. His preamble sets the scene and acts as an exposition for the concept and format of the way in which the story will unfold. This sets up the audience expectations for a much wider scope and more personal understandings, rather than a retelling of a war long past.

O'Hare, who first appears dressed in an old coat and hat, does all this with a chair, a table, and a small suitcase containing a bottle and a glass, plus a superb lighting plot, by Scott Zielinski. His only other assistance is provided by the remarkable sounds produced by bassist, Brian Ellingsen, from the score by composer and sound designer, Mark Bennett. Ellingson employs all of the usual bowing with various forms of attack, as well as a full range of playing techniques including double stopping, col legno battuto, pizzicato, sul ponticello, harmonics, jeté, and percussive use of the body of the instrument, some of which is electronically modified. The sound scape that he provides is sweepingly expressive.

The set design, by Rachel Hauck, is a bare stage ready to be set up, with racks and groups of stage lights across the back, solid transport cases to one side, and a clear view into the wings, all giving the impression that the company has just arrived and unloaded. The Poet is in dim lighting at first, until throwing a switch and bringing up the working lights. As the work progresses conventional stage lighting subtly takes over, almost imperceptibly replacing the harsh working lights. The sound and visual aspects add a great deal to the production, without dominating.

The full scope of the tale is there, but told in a unique way, referencing other wars and conflicts, bringing Troy into the 21st Century and relating it to events with which we are all too familiar making the characters of Hector, Agamemnon, Helen, Achilles, and the others seem more real, no longer figures of legend. The horrors of that war become just as real as those of the 20th and 21st Centuries, of which many of us have all too much familiarity O'Hare leads us through what becomes almost an entire history of war, its horrors, its futility, the overviews and the individual personal impacts, such as the loss of close friends, all with reference to this one war that occurred over 2,500 years ago.

He speaks to the audience as both a storyteller, reciting the poetry of Homer, a commentator, dissecting and analysing the Iliad, and in conversational style, Brechtian in many ways, addressing the audience directly, eliciting an occasional response to his questioning. This is such a wide ranging production with so much to say, and saying it with such skill and engagement, that it is so hard to accept that it seems to be over, hardly any time at all after it has begun. Both the production and O'Hare's performance, under the insightful and incisive direction of Lisa Peterson, hold the audience in thrall during every second.

This is the sort of theatre that keeps one going back, often sitting through nights of dross, just waiting for something like this to make it all worthwhile. If this is not on your Festival list then you had should add it now and, if there are any seats left, book in.

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From This Author Barry Lenny

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