Review / ‘The Iliad’ takes its toll

Theatre / “The Iliad Out Loud,” Part I. An abridged classic verse text read live. At The Street Theatre. April 28-30. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA

William Zappa, photo by Lorna Sim

IF ever proof were needed that Canberra audiences are among this country’s most sophisticated, it was there in abundance last night, with a packed house for the opening night of “The Iliad Out Loud.”

All but an estimated 15 patrons made it to the end of the three-hour marathon,  including quite a number of heroic children who will probably never forget this experience.

In the manner of an ancient bard, adapter/director and performer William Zappa prepared the ground for the evening’s reading, then quickly jumped into the opening scenes of Homer’s confronting epic, the great quarrel between  mighty opposites Agamemnon and Achilles and the spoiling role played by the gods.

As an aide memoir, banners were hung on stage listing the main Greeks, the main Trojans and the main gods (and who they’re supposed to be barracking for) to avoid confusion.

There was some humour as Zappa portrayed Zeus, god of gods, as a henpecked husband, but the mood was largely serious, with percussionist Gary France in the background resisting the temptation to stir up a storm by matching the mounting anger of Achilles with quiet drum rolls and other percussive effects of a more insinuating kind.

As chief narrator, Zappa astutely avoided shouting in rhetorical style, preferring to use his vocal inflections to hit the mark. His adaptation of the epic into fluid iambics was effective, allowing both colloquial and poetic language.

Soon he was joined on stage by actors Nick Byrne and later Chrissie Shaw. This part, taken from Book 2, climaxed in the famous “Catalogue of Ships,” augmented in heroic style by two groups of young actors from the Canberra Academy of Dramatic Art, who joined in from the audience. This section reminded Zappa of stories about young Australian men signing up for World War I from all quarters of the continent.

Most of the scenes covered in last night’s performance were not intimate ones, with the exception of the domestic dispute between Zeus and Hera and a peculiar seduction scene between Helen and the cowardly Paris, who has been whisked away by the gods from the battle to a boudoir.

Three things stood out last night.

The first, an unavoidable impression for a modern audience, is that women are pawns in spoils of war. Men are called out as cowards by likening them to women. Everybody in the story seems quite comfortable with the idea that young women like Chryseis and Briseis can be traded  and that Helen can be the prize for a combat between Paris and Menelaus. The narrators ploughed on, despite murmurs of distaste from the house.

The second impression is that the gods are playing a sporting match with human beings. Zeus makes decisions just for the hell of it. Aphrodite and Athena have their favourites and several deities have children on the battlefield. These gods can be wounded, but the human beings generally try to avoid that if they can work out who is actually a god.

The strongest impression of all in Part 1 is the sheer bloodiness of war. The hero-in-the-making  Diomedes is consumed with bloodlust.  Homer is forensic in his anatomical descriptions of what death on the battlefield is really like – spears thrusting through nipples, into brains, out the other end – it’s pretty strong stuff.

Two nights remain of “The Iliad Out Loud” –  7pm tonight, Saturday, April 29 and at 4pm tomorrow, Sunday, April 30.


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