Arts / ‘The Iliad’ comes to life in Anzac week

THERE is a nice serendipity in the fact that actor William Zappa has chosen ANZAC week to launch a dramatic project in Canberra – a three-night reading of Homer’s “Iliad”, the story of a great battle fought in the Dardanelles.

Actor-adapter-director William Zappa. Photo by Lorna Sim

Pretty well everybody has heard of the ravishingly beautiful Helen of Troy, stolen away by Paris from her Spartan husband Menelaus and the cause of the great war between the militaristic Greeks and the cultured Trojans.

But “The Iliad” (Ilium is the Roman word for a city at the same spot) doesn’t start with Helen, as Zappa knows.

He’s been poring through multiple translations of the epic, and also using his own knowledge of modern Greek, he’s come up with an entirely new English version in hexameters, the six-beat rhythm of the ancient text.

“The Iliad” is the ancestor of all our literary arts.

Who knows who Homer actually was? He may have been a blind poet from the island of Chios or many bards, passing on heroic stories in an oral tradition. Whatever the case, the mighty epics “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” have been the foundation of Western culture, almost as much as the Bible.

It’s grandfather to the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, great-grandfather to “The Aeneid” and the inspiration for countless plays and poems, including those of Shakespeare.

As the classically-trained Zappa has long known, characters, the themes and the driving poetry of “The Iliad” come across fresh and true, as if they were thought up yesterday.

He likes to joke that he’s “half Greek, half English, all Australian” and has been doing performances from the ancient texts for a few years. Now he has taken on the big one in “’The Iliad’ Out Loud”.

Zappa is the director of his own adaptation, joining on stage, at The Street Theatre, two well-known Canberra actors, Nick Byrne and Chrissie Shaw and percussionist Gary France, to present at least the essence of “The Iliad” over three successive nights.

Like Homer, he doesn’t begin at the beginning, but jumps 10 years into the Trojan War to the stalemate between the warrior Achilles, and the high King of the Greek Federation, Agamemnon – arrogant, thuggish, and used to getting his own way. Achilles has his own character faults too in a version of what we would call “anger-management problems”.

As stories go, it’s got everything that the ancient Greek critic Aristotle would have demanded – twists and turns, reversals, high-born characters behaving badly, and a bunch of capricious gods behaving even more dreadfully.

The text has been all things to all people – stomach-turningly violent, tender, bombastic and with, as you’d expect from a master storyteller, plenty of humour. Great heroes like the warrior Ajax are not exempt from a little bit of satire.

If you’ve never read this masterpiece – and in these days of 140-word messages you might not have – here’s your chance.

I wouldn’t miss it for quids.

“The Iliad Out Loud”. An abridged classic verse text read live, at The Street Theatre. April 28-30. Bookings to thestreet.org.au or 6247 1223.

Part 1, 7pm, Friday. The Quarrel. Arrogance and Pride. Meddling Gods. Two Mighty Forces. The Husband, The Wife, The Cause. What You Get Is War.

Part 2, 7pm, Saturday. A Hero Is Made. Tenderness and Love. Fighting and Truce. Heavenly Conflict. Plea and Rejection. Bitter Losses.

Part 3, 4pm, Sunday. Storming the Ships. Heavenly Tricks. Glory and Death. The Shield. Despair Brings Amends. Gods and Fate. A Father Begs.

 

 

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