Emma Geliot's picture

Iliad.  Image courtesy of National Theatre Wales 

National Theatre Wales programme is never short of ambition, but their production of Iliad, at the theatr Ffwrnes/Furnace theatre in Llanelli, is epic in every sense. Emma Geliot goes for full immersion in an all-day, four part marathon performance.

Iliad is four separate performances based on Christopher Logue s extraordinary poetic working of Homer s The Iliad, collectively known as War Music. Devised for the theatre by the creative team of Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes, who staged both The Persians and Coriolan/us for NTW. They can be consumed individually or swallowed as a gourmet feast. I went for the blow out. Elsewhere in Llanelli, heartland of Welsh rugby, fans were preparing for the Wales v England match. The day would end in two victories, one pyrrhic, and one triumphant.

In the beginning there was no beginning and in the end no end

Part One Kings, opens with the Greeks stuck on a beach beneath the walls of Troy. They ve been there nine years quite possibly the most sustained act of macho posturing and Mexican standoff ever. They are watched over by the gods, who are played by young performers from Carmarthenshire, who interfere, settle scores, are petulant or benign from five video screens high above the action. Occasionally they are present, but looking awaywe see the backs of their heads or else they are entirely absent,unable to sustain their attention as the mortals squabble for Helen of Troy (she whose face launched a thousand ships etc.), stolen by Paris. When they do wade in it is to tip the balance in favour of one side or another, thereby prolonging the agony.

It could have all been over so much sooner if Achilles (the Wondersulk, played petulantly by Richard Lynch) had joined the fight earlier. He doesn t because he is peeved at Agamemnon, who keeps pinching his women (his 'shes' women are reduced to possessive gender in this ancient world) and damagingto Achilles' amour propre. This seems a bit rich as the sulky one seems to be saving his affections for Patroclus (although he has a funny way of showing it as we ll discover).

Thesandy liminal stretch, which the Greeks are stranded on, is overseen by not one god but two (Zeus and Poseidon), and, to make matters worse, they haven t bothered to ask either of them if it s ok to build a big wooden fortification there. A big mistake. If only they d taken the trouble to slaughter a lamb or a bull in propitiation, they might not have spent so long picking sand out of their toes. Instead they surge, are repelled, scratch their heads, repeatedly, for nine long years.

How do you stage a theatre of war, featuring thousands of soldiers (and a dizzying array of generals and advisors) with a cast of only 20 (including the on screen gods)? How to swerve away from a literalism that would belie the poetry of Logue s text? The Mikes Pearson and Brookes offer us no gleaming armour, wounds spouting Kensington Gore nor set-piece sword fights. The six actors are relatively static, identically clad in dark suits and what might be stab vests, delineating character with gestures, vocal shifts, shedding a layer of clothing, or even just a change in body language. The four Constructors are similarly attired but, as the actors declaim, they strip down to their vests and still sweat from exertion. The theatre space, cleared of seating, is transformed by this crew of four. They move purposefully back and forth. Tyres are wheeled or lugged into piles, topped with platforms from which the actors grab at the mics hanging from the roof struts. Stacks of white plastic garden chairs are dragged, swung, hurled, re-stacked, mounded, lashed, then moved again. Those audience members who have bagged themselves a chair are shunted to another part of the action, or away from the wooden structures that hint at watch towers, palisades, barricades, war machines or city walls. Later, much later, they ll have a more active role to play.

At first I can t connect the pacing of the text with the rhythms of this set construction, but war, especially one as drawn out as this one, is dull between the bouts of action and, while the principle protagonists square up, supplicating to their gods, the troops are not idle. Across the back wall, a video pans slowly a hillside with ponies grazing, gorse flickering brightly, the sea in the distance or a stand of trees. The world is inexorably turning as the drama plays out. Composer John Hardy is light-handed with the sound that also succeeds in dodging the representational bullet. It thrums, throbs and occasionally rises to a rallying war horn, a thunderous drum, but is more often seamlessly stitched into an under blanket for the words, like a conversation on a cliff top as the sea susurrates below.

Part One is a scene-setting exercise and the audience has a chance to get to grips with who s who; which characters are Trojan, which Greek, and how the gods are distributing their favours or displeasure. If I had left after this first part, I would have been perplexed and perhaps a little disappointed.

 

 

 

 Farrows Creative/National Theatre Wales Daniel Hawksford, Llion Williams, Rosa Casado, Ffion Jones, Richard Huw Morgan, Melanie Walters, Richard Lynch, Guy Lewis & Claire Cage. Image: Farrows Creative/National Theatre Wales

 

It is only as section follows section that I can begin to get into the story, absorb the language and the text is glorious glittering with poetic devices, studded with wit and sparingly sprinkled with contemporary references. The words scroll on many screens around the space. I imagine they are there to aid the cast and to pace the action, so that the video feeds come in on time, but they are rather distracting. The language is so seductive, so riven with alien words, that our eyes are drawn to the screens. Logue s text is lyrically cast, rather than framed in dramatic arcs, so that poetry subsumes drama and, when our eyes snap back to the scene, it has changed. Cloud-shrouded towers obscure views, topped with spiky plastic sea-urchin thunderheads more menacing than powder-puff cumulus. A barrier bisects the middle ground more chairs ram-jammed together, then pulled apart and tumbled into a jagged hillside against a wall.

Just short of two hours of performance, an hour's break, and then back for...

 

Part Two The Husbands. Now we re down to the nitty gritty. Paris, the wife stealer, who has had rather a low profile up to now, will settle matters by going man-to-man with Helen s husband Menelaos. The winner gets the girl and everyone can go home. At last, we hear from Helen (Claire Cage); as her attendants pretty her up, dust her down in gold, to show she s worth all of this trouble. Now Now

But this reasonable solution is too simple and the gods shove their collective oars in again. What should have been a coup de grace is subverted the Greeks soldiers decide to level the playing field by hurling weapons at fallen Paris, their projectiles are translated into doves that flutter away. How frustrating. Close Close Helen remains un-rescued.

A pause for lunch then...

 

Part Three Red/Cold. How to break the deadlock? The Greeks are still on the narrow spit of land between the sea and the walls of Troy, behind the palisade that has so annoyed Poseidon (built without heavenly planning permission).

Before the soldiers die of boredom, it s agreed to give it one last shot. The armies hum like power lines. The battle that ensues is fast and furious chariot surge and the fighting is bitter along a ridge, a slope, with knots of soldiers from each side popping up to pull the rug from under their opponents. It seems pretty even until the gods interfere again. A river engulfs the Greeks, tosses them about and fills their lungs then, when the Trojans step into its waters, they cross like toddlers in a plastic paddling pool. What follows is graphically described bloody, violent. Beheadings, gashings, slashings. Eyes are gouged out, limbs torn from torsos, but all in the words of Logue and the minds of the audience. Some of the latter find themselves hauled from their seats, splayed starfish-like across floor and stage (I watch about 15 minutes of the action up the flaring nostrils of the cast, forgetting that I am lying in an unflattering position with the blood pounding in my ears). This is like a radio play the best pictures are in our heads.

Ultimately nothing is achieved except an accumulation of dismembered bodies.

A final pause. There s a lot of bloodshed to digest over the afternoon cup of tea. Outside, in the real, modern world, the pubs with big screen tellies are filling up with red shirted men and women.

 

 

Part Four War Music There s nothing for it but to ask Achilles to set his anger aside and step in to finish things off. He doesn t, he won t unless he has a full, public apology from Agamemnon, who is a king and subscribes to the old,Never apologise, never explain , adage. So Achilles compromises and sends his beloved Patroclus to take Troy down, with the strict instructions to leave Hector (who heads up the Trojan forces) for him to deal wi,th. So, Patroclus sets off across the Aegean in Achilles armour and galvanizes the Greeks. Does Patroclus remember Achilles instructions to leave Hector for him? Of course he doesn t and, as Cassandra could have told him (actually did forewarn), it doesn t end well. Patroclus is no more. There follows an unseemly fight over his corpse as the Greeks try to guard it until they can repatriate it, while the Trojans are determined to defile the remains. Achilles armour is stripped off the corpse and the opposing sides fight over the increasingly battered cadaver, like hungry hyenas. At least the news of his beloved Patroclus death galvanises Achilles and he sets off to do his bit as the cavalry in the eleventh hour.

When the day began the audience moved freely around the theatre. I stood for the first two parts, wanting to see all there was to see from all angles. Two parts, nearly four hours, in and we re grateful for the chairs, even if we're occasionally shifted from our seats. In the closing hours, however, we are more or less fixed, a few relocations as the Constructors rank the chairs to their satisfaction for the final rout. Achilles has new armour from the gods and, spurred on by the death of his friend, leads the Greeks to a definitive (for now) victory, reclaims Patroclus body to take home and bury. Oh, and he kills Hector and, when he feels particularly stirred up, he takes his enemy s body for a drag around Patroclus grave. Emotionally wrung out we clap. We stand and clap some more louder.

At CCQ we don't do star ratings, but if we did this production would have enough gold sticky ones to motivate a whole classroom of mixed infants for a very long time.

It is night now, nearly 10pm. Outside the theatre the square echoes to a tremendous roar, quietens for a few minutes and then erupts again. Somewhere else two old enemies have squared up and one of them has won against the odds

 

Iliad is at Furnace/Ffwrnes until 03.10.2015 The final performance will be an all-night marathon of all four performances. www.nationaltheatrewales/Iliad

 

Top image: Iliad. Image courtesy of National Theatre Wales