Review: AN ILIAD at Spoleto Festival USA

AN ILIAD brings the wrath of Achilles to life, cataloging the casualties of wars.

By: Jun. 03, 2023
Review: AN ILIAD at Spoleto Festival USA

Writer-director Lisa Peterson and writer-actor Denis O’ Hare have chosen well in naming their adaptation of Homer’s epic AN ILIAD. For this Iliad is to be understood as one of many possibilities: one of many ways of retelling the blind poet’s colorful account of the Trojan War, which itself codifies many ancient oral transmissions by the Greek bard, and sadly, one of many wars that can be lamented, bewailed, and memorialized in this way.

There’s a noticeable world-weariness in O’Hare’s demeanor as he enters for his Spoleto Festival USA debut, turns off a downstage ghostlight, and moves it to the wings at the antique Dock Street Theatre as he settles into the storytelling. Clearly in his eyes, it isn’t a story that does credit to mankind.

Review: AN ILIAD at Spoleto Festival USA

We quickly learn that Achilles and Hector will be the chief protagonists and adversaries in this distillation. Mercilessly, Peterson and O’Hare zero in on chief Greek personalities, just as Homer did, but with a more concentrated focus on their pettiness and hypocrisy. The war was begun when Hector’s brother, Paris, eloped with the beauteous Helen of Troy, stealing her from King Menelaus of Sparta.

King Agamemnon of Argos, brother of Menelaus, declares war on Troy to avenge his brother’s disgrace, and launches the fabled thousand ships to bring Helen Back. O’Hare actually dips into the Robert Fagles translation of Homer to enumerate the kingdoms and the exact numbers of their ships that have sailed the seas with armed soldiers just to settle this domestic squabble.

Yet when we first see O’Hare portraying Agamemnon, nine long years into the 20-year war, the Argive king is refusing to give back a woman he shouldn’t have, despite the fact that the gods have already punished him for his insolence by decimating the entire Greek army with plague. When the Greek general finally relents, he does so by taking Achilles’ woman, Briseis (spoils of a previous war!), in exchange. Achilles isn’t pleased at all, but his counter to this indignity is more sullen and tranquil: the greatest champion of the Greeks sits in his tent, refusing to fight.

Review: AN ILIAD at Spoleto Festival USA

O’Hare is so focused on the pettiness and selfishness of Achilles that he ignores the impact and implications of his sitdown strike: by sulking on the sidelines, Achilles does as much – if not more – to turn the tide of the war than the deaths of thousands in the plague. That’s how colossally great this warrior so often proves to be in Homer’s telling.

But despite O’Hare’s anti-heroic sentiments, there is no stinting when he arrives at the wrath of Achilles, the Myrmidon king, after Hector has slain his beloved Patroclus. Nor should there be, since “Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles” is the opening plea from Homer to his Muse in Fagles’ translation – and every other – clearly the bard’s central subject.Review: AN ILIAD at Spoleto Festival USA

There’s a huge payoff for dwelling on Achilles’ rage and his barbaric exultation after he has avenged Patroclus’s killing. The fury of it resonates through the Homeric catalog that O’Hare inserts into his narrative, a catalog of wars that have raged around the world since the Trojan War that parallels the Homeric catalog of ships that sailed on Troy.

Ultimately, Achilles’ fury and his fearsome rampage are a towering eruption of his hurt pride and the bitterness of his compounded losses. Agamemnon surely hasn’t appeased him, and his best friend Patroclus found no way to end his sulking. Yet when he spirals out of control, still furious after wreaking his revenge, it is the grieving King Priam, Hector’s aged father, who finally calms Achilles down and returns him to civility.

Review: AN ILIAD at Spoleto Festival USA

O’Hare crafts his storytelling, referencing our pandemic sufferings and the war in Ukraine along the way, in a manner that augments the dignity and poignancy of Priam’s supplications – making us understand how deeply the old king must reach to stir Achilles’ humanity and steer him back toward reason.

The magic of this moment is in the commonality of the grief that Achilles and Priam can share. It is a grief that men have perpetrated and suffered forever. We shake our heads sadly over how devastatingly hurtful and heartbreaking it all is – and how utterly senseless and stupid.


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From This Author - Perry Tannenbaum

  Perry Tannenbaum has been covering the performing arts across the Carolinas since 1987. He has also acted onstage in productions by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, innovative Theatre, an... Perry Tannenbaum">(read more about this author)


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