That war is bad is nothing new. Be it the expansion of territory, the challenge of leadership, or the objectifying reward of the most beautiful woman in the world, the event that triggers the discord of militant violence is, in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant. And yet, its history educates us. Epic poetry was not only a form of artistic expression and entertainment in Ancient Greece, but also a means of archiving the culture of preliterate societies for generations. They contained not only the facts, but also the lyricism through which the author could imbue thematic morality.
First staged in 2012, Lisa Peterson and David O’Hare’s An Iliad narrows Robert Fagle’s translation of the original Homeric text to the conflict between Achilles, his bravery born from his invulnerability, and Hector, who earned his through didaskein. This focus on the historical and academically cited contrast in masculinity allows the Poet, played by veteran thespian Michael Hurst, to ruminate with resonant intimacy on the consequences of not only the rage provoked in battle, but also of a lifetime recounting it.
When the heavily-bearded Hurst enters, he sighs in response to the abruptly hushed, house-lit audience. This sigh tells us everything. And yet, even with the weight of war heavy in his throat, Hurst’s Poet cannot quell the passion his words evoke. At times it overwhelms him, as it does us. Slumped in a chair, Hurst performs an epic catalogue with such pathos that one could hear a pin drop. Moments later he’s enacting a slaughter with the bloodlust of a Spartan. Hurst, like the Poet, was born to tell us stories.
However, as the house lights dim in the notoriously drowse-inducing vertiginous Herald Theatre, Peterson and O’Hares script drags through the establishing exposition. There are moments, such as the regionalising of place names, which allow Hurst to drop the audience into the piece, but the 20-30 minutes of the text, once the Poet begins his narration, creates a false sense of the expected duration of the piece.
Fortunately, director and conceptual designer Jonathan Hendry has orchestrated a dynamic pace and rhythm that progresses the story with an imperceptible delicateness that never feels forced, accentuated by Rachael Marlowe’s lighting design. Whether flooded in house light, contained in spotlight, or shadowed against the back wall, Marlowe encapsulates Hurst in the mises en scènes with classical antiquity. The live soundscape, composed and performed by Shayne P Carter as the Muse, is jarring at first, but settles into place once the gimmick is forgotten and the attention is redirected back to Hurst, allowing Carter’s music to truly feed the piece as intended.
When Peterson and O’Hare’s words paint the pictures, it’s beautiful, but when Hurst sees the scenes, it’s devastatingly deep. However, there are some moments that are not given their time to breathe or resonate, such as Carter’s entrance, and while there is no direct mention by Homer, it does seem conservative to distinctly label the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as “friends” over the more culturally likely paiderasteia.
An Iliad was the last production staged at the abruptly closed historic Fortune Theatre in Dunedin last year. The blow of this tragedy is lessened only in the knowledge that its 44-year history culminated with a show inspired by one of the greatest texts in history, performed by one of the greatest actors in our country. And thanks to Artsense Productions and Auckland Live, Auckland now has the opportunity to bear witness.