Royal Lyceum: Wed 20 April – Sat 14 May 2016
Review by Hugh Simpson
Epic in scope, huge in sweep and utterly human, The Iliad at the Lyceum is a powerful production.
Adaptor Chris Hannan has shown in the past he is not frightened of big themes and big stories, and they do not come much bigger than what has been considered the beginning of the entire Western canon.
The story of the Greek hero Achilles skulking in his tent nine years into the siege of Troy, opens out to tell about the background to the conflict, wars among gods and humans, and general bloodshed.
The story of a war that occurred three thousand years ago, and several centuries before the epic poem was composed by Homer (whoever that was), has continued to be relevant across the years, particularly in times of turbulence.
The idea of the ancient reaching across to the modern, in Mark Thomson’s last turn as director before leaving the Lyceum, is shown as soon as the audience enter the theatre. Karen Tennent’s wonderful set is instantly visible, with ruined Greek temples encasing RSJs – which occasionally resemble burnished gold under some of Simon Wilkinson’s more painterly lighting effects.
This is not the only magical touch wrought by the combination of design and lighting. The hour is clearly signalled, whether it is the heat and dust of the day, watery sun at dusk or the mysterious blue coolness of the night; there are also moments of breathtaking beauty, right from the sepulchral shafts of light piercing the set as the play opens.
This beauty is of course extremely hard won, being assailed on all sides by horror and chaos, exemplified by the energetic, clangorous fight scenes choreographed by Raymond Short, where blood is literally flung across the stage. There is no stinting on the depiction of the barbarism of conflict, dehumanising its combatants even as they cling to notions of honour.
Hannan’s adaptation is particularly interested in the way that women are reduced to collateral damage – witness Jennifer Black’s heartbreaking sorrow as the Trojan queen Hecuba, or Amiera Darwish’s stoically uncomprehending captive Briseis – but the men fare little better. Neither, indeed, do the gods – as Emmanuella Cole’s constantly fascinating, frighteningly modern Hera informs us, they are just as jealous, petty and vengeful as mortals, and carry on being so for ever.
Richard Conlon’s Zeus becomes all the more terrible by being presented as a capricious, easily bored manchild – ultimate power combined with ultimate irresponsibility.
Perhaps the portrayals of the gods hints a little too much at reality TV – the war may have been caused by an Olympian ‘beauty contest’, but the resulting swimsuit parade is the one false step in Megan Baker’s otherwise remarkable costume design.
Several of the cast provide fascinating contrasts when doubling as both mortals and deities – Melody Grove’s two mothers Thetis and Andromache – grieving for what they fear is to come – are particularly striking, but there are successful performances throughout.
Few, however, match Ron Donachie’s immense presence as the egotistically blustering, inwardly fearful Greek commander Agamemnon, and the bewildered, utterly defeated Trojan King Priam. Priam’s efforts to retrieve the body of his son Hector are given a great deal of weight and stage time here, with the resultant uneasy truce perhaps being held up as a possibility of redemption.
However, as Daniel Poyser’s wise Ulysses reminds us, the war will soon restart. We all know the chaos and carnage that will ensue – and if we don’t, Hera’s witty tip-off about that Horse gives us some idea. As she tells us, this may be the first time this all happens, but it has gone on happening ever since.
Achilles, meanwhile, knows he is fated to die; Ben Turner’s portrayal of a man constantly on the edge, driven by forces utterly outwith his control, is both recognisably modern and completely timeless.
This is equally true of Hannan’s script, which is both poetic and raw. Homeric metaphors jostle with the demotic and the chillingly contemporary. Being unafraid of bathos, it is correspondingly able to soar to the heights at times.
Performances as contrasting as Benjamin Dilloway as the noisily upstanding Hector and Peter Bray as his self-pitying, oblivious brother Paris are beautifully integrated by Thomson into an ensemble that is as unified as any you could hope to see. Mark Holgate (Patroclus) is a touchingly doomed figure that would stand out in other company but here is part of a seamless whole; Reuben Johnson’s Diomede is another convincingly contemporary spin on the soldier.
There are some moments where emotional realism is sacrificed in favour of impact, and Claire McKenzie’s music, striking as it is, is not always as convincingly used as it might be. However, this does not detract too greatly from the overall power of a production which never feels long, even at a touch under three hours.
The foundation stone of Western literature is made utterly relevant without any preaching or gimmickry. Instead the production is intelligent and sensitive – giving enough responsibility and freedom to all concerned, under an overarching vision that could not be a more fitting directorial swansong for Mark Thomson at the Lyceum.
Running time 2 hours 55 minutes (including one interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street EH3 9AX
Wednesday 20 April – Saturday 14 May 2016
Evenings: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30 pm; Matinees: Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.00 pm
Tickets from http://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/the-iliad
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