National Theatre Wales Iliad

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So on the 6am drive back to Cardiff from Llanelli yesterday morning, after watching the all-night marathon of National Theatre Wales’ Iliad, one of the people to whom I’d offered a ride was wondering about the suitability of this marathon for spectators who had hitherto not known Homer’s Iliad. Would the all-night retelling (of Christopher Logue’s version) have been just too heavy and disorientating and complicated for someone initially encountering the work?

At the time, I thought ‘yeah, probs,’ it would be difficult for this durational version, segmented into four performances to be one’s introduction. But, later on the way home, driving down the cryptically foggy M5, I thought ‘actually – hang about! That was my first “proper” introduction. I’d never sat of an evening studying the Iliad. Perhaps, as a young’un, I thumbed a sticky children’s version, and, probably, at some point I flicked through Logue’s translation in the library, and I’m pretty sure I remember Brad Pitt in Greek sandals circa 2004. So via publically-funded osmosis, and thanks to Hollywood, I’ve become aware of the story sufficiently to evade social/spectatorial anxiety, but I still had to ask during the first break ‘what’s the deal with Achilles?’

So, what, then, is the purpose of spectating or staging these ‘classics’? Is there an educational driver? Is it to give people like me a well meaning public service? Or is it so playmakers can take on these works as chunky creative challenges: prompts or provocations? Are they gauntlets or rights of passage? Is it to engage in high octane culturally reflexive labour – charting a deep performance history? Is it an acid test of appropriation – fitting the work to ‘the now’? Take the Paper Cinema’s supercute Odyssey, with its emphasis on intricately constructed visual story-telling; that was beautiful and well executed, sure, but the effect of the work was literally to disseminate the fabula to the masses.

But maybe, sometimes, it’s the opposite; when we ‘reinterpret’ classics, are we basically assuming that audiences have pre-existing cultural knowledge of the text, or, a priori, interest in it? Worse, do we assume that they sure do and ‘worry’ about them if they don’t? And, here, should we worry more about knowing Homer or Logue or the playmakers? Which knowledge should one have? And surely, if we’re worried that someone doesn’t have ‘the right’ knowledge, is there a greater onus on presentation rather than interpretation – does the visual storytelling need to reinforce the key (narrative) principles of the work or is it okay to mess about? Or can you do both – like The Great Comet of 1812 an immersive musical of War and Peace I saw in New York a few years ago that dealt swiftly with the spectatorial anxiety of not knowing Tolstoy via extensive diagrams in the programme so we could all get on with drinking cocktails and eating radishes at ease.

I’d like to know why Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes choose to work with the works that they choose to work with – particularly given the dynamics their plays riff off. We’re not in London, or New York; we’re in Llanelli. And we’ve had the The Persians in 2010 and Coriolan/us in 2012 doing the same thing: cleaving the works to Wales through flourishes of site-specificity. For theatre, these are big political choices; there is an awareness that the (London) thespians will descend on Llanelli, or the Beacons, or wherever in Wales, and so there’s this interesting geographically politicised play around the canonical status of the text, the elitism of the audience, and the reappropriation of the play in rural Wales – and the stakes of this game increase the more durational the experiences become.

So here are some thoughts on Saturday’s marathon. I found the whole thing fucking glorious: both the work and its duration. There were four performances: Kings, The Husbands, Red/Cold and War Music spanning the night with breaks of up to two hours for kips. And here were my first impressions in Kings: you go into a gutted theatre and upstage there’s a cinema size screen which will show long takes of Welsh landscape, which, encouraged by the gestures of narrator-actors, become the descriptions of landscape in the text (though not the fan – an extensive description of dunes in War Music – that was working exquisitely in paradox with a oner of wind whistling gorse). So Kings: you enter the theatre with the playing of a long-take of a craggy rock-scape, where horses graze tentatively, slowly coming and going. And you take a bright white plastic chair from a big school-like stack and seat it where you want, basically in a circle around the ‘action’, which takes place in the round, under industrial lighting. And there are shed-loads of tyres and twelve large wooden pole things, some short ones, some rope in the corner (to be used later) and the chairs. Then, there are ten mics dangling from yellow bungees – to be used by narrators to relate Logue’s translation, which is reel-storied on about six small screens. In one corner is a line of other screens (pleasantly small ones – like the Wooster Group’s half of Troilus and Cressida at the RSC in 2012), from which the gods will appear: they’re wet and teenage-angry – their messed up ‘kill kill’ logic mimetically hinged to their immaturity. And they’re pre-recorded but entering into the live narrative with their interjections. And there are ten actors, six of whom will do most of the narrating, four of whom are stage-hands (slightly reductive term, maybe, for what they’re doing) who shape the transitioning visual of the performance by constant re/negotiation of chairs, tyres and wooden poles. And, it’s bloody freezing, and not in a meaning making way, like watching Woyzeck kill Marie in the forest in The Drowned Man; it’s just bloody cold. But this was literally all I could assume that Clare Brennan was referring to when she said she felt not enough budget had been thrown into the work…which is otherwise rich in meaning and structure and design and resource.

But we start to listen – and to watch. And we start with the Greek context. The text is delivered as written (though clearly ideal for performance with its wonderful alliteration and image work and word play and unexpected upheavals to contemporary jargon and metaphorical density, but, oh God, did the ‘shes’ – the term used for ‘women’ throughout – do my head in). We listen mostly about what’s happening, where it’s happening, who’s involved, how the Gods prevail in the mortal’s actions, and then, occasionally, actors fully evoke a character and we get snippets of a more obvious theatricality: beats like Agamemnon really needing Achilles and Achilles not playing ball and Hector writhing in Troy. I’m well into this conflict throughout the entire night and wanted, if I’m honest, a bit more story action (maybe, then, increased textual interpretation overall – excavating more obvious ‘drama’ and character interaction from Logue’s work) but I’m still well up for the beautifully rendered narration and the wonderful emphasis on the blank form here. During the performances, especially the first, the tyres are layered and wooden boards laid over them to create mini stages that action and storytelling can happen on discretely, but, for me, as the plays progressed the tyres became increasingly irrelevant and unnecessary. But, to be fair, I did like their ugliness, their hinting at movement/journey – beyond the generic possibilities of the performance – and I did like how they, combined with the chairs, the physical props of the piece, contributed some sense of a symbolic passage of time toward our own. And capitalism.

Each performance crescendos towards a cliff-hanger (what will Achilles do? Who’s going to win? How are the Gods going to respond etc.?), and you know a performance is almost up as the chairs are gradually taken away for stage business and you’re encouraged to stand. At the end of Kings, the narrating stops and we watch a sequence where chairs are vigorously and repeatedly thrown against the wall, many of them, piling up, signifying noise and action and violence and bodies. They topple and fall and build and intertwine and it’s incredibly mesmeric. And then the lights twitch and shut down gradually on the action and you’re free to have a break.

And talking of the chairs: the logic of the mise-en-scène here is very intriguing. I was always thinking: ‘What are they building now? With those chairs and that rope and that wood?’ And ‘How is it responsive to the poem?’ So there’s a lot of interpretive labour to be done throughout which keeps you, as a spectator, active, analysing the set building: the gradual making of installations out of chairs and wood and, once they’re erected (my favourite were the final dandelion-esque ones – a metaphor for time, maybe, tied to landscape) you’re thinking of their symbolic value, trying to create some kind of lineage between the shapes and the action. There’s something very elemental about it all; all words and physical labour. And nothing funny in the whole damn thing. At first, I was a bit disconcerted about this and tried to laugh (especially when Logue’s work was intentionally funny – I liked the gel snails someone was gratuitously eating), but this wasn’t picked up on in the performances. And Patroclus and Achilles scenes are moving and Achilles’ despair around Patroclus’ death was one of the things I would have liked to be more ‘dramatised’ here. But it didn’t matter so much because, by this point, the aesthetic coherency of the piece had long been established and I neither expected ‘drama’ nor craved it. And, in a way, it’s probably better that this ‘friendship’ wasn’t interpreted (for fear it might become a cringy gay-kiss-for-good-measure-kind-of-thing, like Antonio and Bassanio in the RSC’s most recent Merchant of Venice). Yet there was little touching here in the entire thing.

And the endurance of the actors goes without saying. And, at first, I wondered if the plays had been designed with the marathons or discrete sections in mind most. Were we seeing the full piece or just the combination of all the pieces? But then, when I think about it now, the whole thing – everything – is about human endurance: the actors’, Logue’s, our endurance, the Greeks and Trojans, and what the Gods – and the playmakers – want to test us with. And, as if I hadn’t thought about it enough, I moved some Faber&Faber down to the living room today and found Logue’s War Music there all along – eerily – like the whole thing still wasn’t over. In the end there is no end.

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