The Greeks are hot on the British stage at the moment. Two versions of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy appeared in London this year, and Euripides is in vogue too, with productions of Medea and Hecuba, in London and Stratford. Nothing surprising about that, of course, since Greek tragedy, a drama of ideas as well as stark personal conflict, has relevance to audiences at any and every time.
But Homer is different. The Iliad has plenty of dramatic moments, but it’s an epic, not a play – and an epic of a particular type. Most scholars agree that although the poem was written down at some stage in the eighth century BC it was the product of a long period of entirely oral tradition. It was intended to be recited, or rather sung, to musical accompaniment, from memory – which accounts for the recurring mnemonic formulae, like ‘poluphlosboio thalasses’ – much-sounding sea, and ‘rhododaktulos Eos’ – rose-fingered Dawn.
Christopher Logue, in his versions of selections from the Iliad published over a period of 34 years, finds a new idiom for Homer’s story. His is an adaptation, not a translation – he had no ancient Greek himself. The formulaic epithets and the famous extended similes are not reproduced as they occur but rewoven into a demotic but sophisticated narrative, full of cinematic effects. Logue finds a new, contemporary English that matches the muscularity of the original Greek. It’s full of 20th and 21st century references and locutions and its images are always, like Homer’s, in-your-face and physical. He guards Homer’s high style but preserves too his bursts of humour. It’s as declamatory a text as the Greek – ideal for radio readings, which there have been – and that’s presumably what attracted the attention of the two NTW directors, Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes, as the basis for their production.
There are four parts to this Iliad, almost corresponding to Logue’s five ‘War Music’ selections (one of them conflates two of Logue’s volumes, All day permanent red and Cold calls). Each was given on separate evenings, as stand-alone performances, with a single ‘marathon’ session incorporating all of them. We went only to ‘Kings’, Logue’s version of Books 1 and 2 of the Iliad, which deal with the origin of the poem’s theme, expressed in its very first line, the ‘wrath of Achilles’.
In the bare, black rectangular space of Ffwrnes the actors, dressed in plain black, wait for us. Microphones dangle from above. The walls bear high screens: a large one shows a single image throughout, a bare Welsh mountainside – a northern Troy – the camera panning very slowly towards lower land and the sea. On the other walls are several monitors. In one row of them gods and goddesses (stark-looking teenagers) make occasional appearances when they intervene in the action. A large number of tyres (the support of several Llanelli tyre firms is acknowledged), MDF panels, wooden planks and white plastic chairs litter the floor. A bleak but undifferentiated sound track, by John Hardy, plays throughout, though not memorably enough to add to the experience.
Though it’s billed as a promenade performance most people in the audience pick up some of the unused chairs to sit on, and remain sitting in them almost to the end. This sets the tone of what’s to be a remarkably static experience. Not that there isn’t any movement. Throughout the performance four glum-looking ‘constructors’ – stage hands or porters – are constantly at work, moving the tyres and wood and combining (and recombining them) them to create platforms and barriers. Their significance (do they stand for the common soldiers, almost always ignored by Homer?) and the meaning of their constructions are obscure, and after a quarter of an hour or so they become an unwanted distraction, and we try to discount them.
More problematic, though, are the actors. Their ability to act seems to have been deliberately curtailed. To speak they need to reach for a microphone, which limits their scope for movement and gesture. They declaim the text as if reading a script on the radio, and indeed they often seem to be referring to one of the monitors above, on which scrolls the complete Logue text, rather than addressing their fellow actors. Movement is stylized and minimised. The emotional temperature barely lifts, even at times of conflict, such as between Agamemnon and Achilles over the confiscation of Briseis, and between Thersites and Odysseus over whether to abandon the siege of Troy. Only at the end of ‘Kings’ is any kind of excitement generated, as the Achaeans cease their wrangling and prepare to resume the attack on Troy. The porters, robotic is their lack of expression up to now, suddenly become jerky, violent and noisy as they throw together a wall of white chairs, abruptly demanding extra seats from audience members occupying them. And then the production’s over, to a ripple of polite applause.
The truth is that this is not a drama. Worse, it seems almost to have been conceived from the start as ‘not a drama’. The directors have deliberately eschewed most of the usual markers of a live drama, bleeding the production dry of emotional conflict, changing tempos and, in ‘Kings’ at least – strangely for National Theatre Wales – audience involvement. It’s a perverse decision, this self-denying minimalism, since Homer is far from spare in his narration or language (Hollywood epic versions, bad though they are, do reflect the colour and grandeur of the original). In the programme the directors speak of their desire to create a ‘theatre machine’ to ‘embody War Music as Iliad’: the result is only too mechanical.
Why this has happened is hard to say, but I wonder if the root of the problem is an over-reverence for Logue’s (and Homer’s) text. The text tends to dominate everything else, literally in the case of the text monitors above our heads: you found yourself tempted simply to read the text rather than concentrate on the actors or the action. And yet the text, dense and allusive, isn’t always treated well. In particular the jokes and sly references Logue plants in it pass by without pause or audience reaction. Would it not have been better to have borrowed or devised a new text designed specifically for the theatre, as Simon Armitage has done for the Iliad and more recently the Odyssey? Or, maybe better still, avoid modern poets’ adaptations altogether and treat the text in a purely oral, untextual way, like the original archaic Greek?
I missed the much praised Persians on Mynydd Epynt, but the second Pearson/Brookes production for National Theatre Wales, Coriolan/us, was a thrilling and absorbing experience for the audience, in a way that Iliad (or at least this first part of it) was not. Richard Lynch, the fine actor who played (and dominated) Coriolan/us, appears again here as Achilles, but he’s given little chance to make much of that angry and self-absorbed hero. The same is true of the rest of the cast. I wonder if they felt frustrated at not being allowed to act?
The Iliad is a challenge for anyone trying to breathe new life into a Bronze Age work. If NTW’s attempt isn’t a success, it’s certainly brave. It also sparks serious questions about the relationship between contemporary dramaturgy and ancient (non-dramatic) texts and their translations.