THE ILIAD - OUT LOUD
THE ILIAD OUT LOUD, William Zappa and Sport For Jove, Sydney Festival at Upstairs Belvoir, (Parts 1, 2 and 3 – 10am, 2.30pm and 7pm Sunday, 27 January 2019). Photography by Lisa Tomasetti and Jamie Williams
The actor William Zappa’s dream project of adapting and staging Homer’s epic as a more or less continuous event of live story-telling was realised on a steamy hot Sunday in January.
It’s been seven-years in the making and Zappa co-directed – with Damien Ryan – as well as appearing with actors, Blazey Best, Socratis Otto and Heather Mitchell, and composer-percussionist Michael Askill and oud, setar and tar player Hamed Sadeghi.
This Iliad is a prodigious undertaking and a truly awesome achievement. In so many ways, of course, the 3000-year-old story of the Trojan Wars is as if written yesterday, for Netflix. It overflows with drama, violence, revenge, hatred, love, laughter and sorrow abounding, yet – in essence – it’s all Helen’s fault.
She is such a beauty and so adored by Menelaus and then Paris, that neither have any defence against behaving incredibly badly in order to have her (sound familiar?) And so it is throughout the 24 books. Women, starting with young Chryseis and Briseis, are bought, sold, traded and otherwise used as goods and chattels when not being routinely raped and murdered. Domestic violence is a given even as international diplomacy feeds on the blood of women and girls. Guys, what is wrong with you?
Listening to the stories, out loud and all together over a period of some nine hours, brings into sharp and shocking focus that which might be overlooked in a traditional reading (on holiday, in class, silently across many days or evenings). Basically, women don’t matter – well, no more than the endless numbers of lambs and cattle that must be offered up to the Gods with blood-curdling frequency.
What also becomes obvious as time and stories pass is Homer’s relish in describing the various acts of war and their effects on the human body. Zappa has studied and incorporated 17 translations of The Iliad in this theatre version and it’s no coincidence that throughout, there is so much minute detail of methods of injuring and killing.
A bronze-tipped spear through the nipple and into the lung is sickeningly common, while similar spears into the belly and fatally through the bladder is another. A sword or spear into the throat or jaw can often be counted on to split the tongue – resulting in a gurgling death. Then, so forceful are blows from the best of the warriors that arms are lopped off from the collar bone. Piquantly, one is reminded that handy rocks and boulders were normal weapons for the Greeks and Trojans: picked up and hurled to turn brains to mush and cause eyes to pop out of their sockets.
Another thought that surfaces after a while is the alarming one that Homer clearly knew his audience – one which delighted in the minutiae of wholesale brutality. And that it’s obviously mirrored today in any action movie, X-Box or even Game of Thrones. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Nevertheless, the single most remarkable accomplishment of this Iliad Out Loud is that the simple telling of it – by the actors, texts in hand, addressing us as readers as well as assuming character voices from time to time – remains mesmerising throughout. Rarely does it falter and this is partly because of the soundtrack and the setting, both of which contribute immensely to the visual and aural pleasure of the piece.
On either side of the Belvoir stage, a backlit list of the main protagonists – Greeks and Trojans and their Gods – was displayed for easy reference. These proved very handy when the wrangling over who to bless and who to curse or trip up and who to beg for favours or plague got too much.
Dominating the rear of the stage, a gleaming bronze wall on which colour washes of light (Matt Cox) changed mood and atmosphere, was a simple and striking image especially for the central placing of Askill’s picturesque array of gongs, drums, cymbals and sound bowls. In the shadow of an enormous drum, Sadeghi unobtrusively sat, adding another layer of rich contrast to the human voices. The interactions of musicians and actors was remarkably and unusually integrated and rewarding (sound: Tegan Nicholls).
In the centre of the stage was a tonne of fine white sand – shaped and shaded between each act to symbolise and resemble various states of the ancient theatre and stories: a Greek orkestra, a dragged and destroyed reminder of Hector’s terrible death. A hurriedly constructed wall to keep out the hordes (cue knowing snorts in the auditorium); and the suggestion of a funeral pyre – a masterpiece of stage management (Farlie Goodwin) and design (set and costumes: Mel Liertz).
Throughout the day – with an hour for lunch and another for dinner with a calmly announced “interval” to further break up the marathon – each actor took turns to tell and to enact. Whether as a God or a human from either side, they were continual reminders that it's often hard to tell the difference – that Gods could be more than appalling and often were, while those who worshipped them could assume the heights of love, compassion and decency when given half a chance. Or not...
Dressed in muted shades of blue and grey over plain black pants, the actors delivered the poetry and narration in conversational “street” voice when not briefly assuming a character role. It had the effect of enhancing the horrifying currency of what we were hearing and reminding us – if necessary – that 3000 years is a blink of an eye in human conduct.
The Iliad Out Loud is a challenging undertaking, for performers and audience alike. It’s also memorable and richly rewarding and it’s to be hoped it won’t be long before some enlightened festival director takes it up.