This review was originally posted on Australian Stage Online on Tuesday, 18 February 2014, and can be found here.
Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s powerful adaptation of Homer’s epic poem Iliad has found an ideal setting in UWA’s Sunken Gardens. An Iliad is performed outdoors in a small amphitheater on UWA’s campus, which has a touch of the Mediterranean about it, and is the perfect size for this grand but intimate one-man-one-muse show. To call this a one-man show is really an understatement, as the scale of this work is genuinely epic, and actor Denis O’Hare is accompanied by a haunting muse in the form of bassist Brian Ellingsen. Also unseen, but certainly felt, is the invisible hand of Lisa Peterson’s direction, which moves this piece along boldly and courageously to its heroic end.
Now, I must confess my own gross ignorance on the source material for this adaptation, so I’ll avoid any comparison to the original literary work, but I suspect O’Hare and Peterson have anticipated that much of their audience would be just as rusty on their ancient Greek. They’ve given the story a modern vernacular, and have taken care to make sure we don’t get lost along the way by always relating this ancient story to something a little closer to home. In fact, this seems to be the aim of the work – to bring all this Greek mythology and literature home to us, who think we’ve lost touch with the ‘old gods’ and their warring ways. Peterson and O’Hare very carefully and artfully show us just how little we’ve changed as a species, century after century; war is an unchanging fact of life, an endless endeavor that sweeps young men up in its glory and lays waste to families and communities.
O’Hare walks us through the tale as a man who exists in a timeless realm; he possesses intimate knowledge of the people and gods he describes and he becomes all of these whenever the ‘spirit’ takes him. He goes from passive, world-weary commentator to active, impassioned warrior (among many other characters) through the course of the play, and he blends humor and drama, peppering sad moments with touches of comedy, and vice versa. The tonal pendulum swings he sometimes makes are impressive, but it’s his perfect, finite gestures and inflections that are most enthralling to witness. Here’s an actor that can be still, centered and absolutely clear in his intentions as they are translated through words and movement.
The lighting in this piece, designed by Scott Zielinski, is really effective in creating different moods and settings, since there’s pretty much just a man with a table and a chair on the scene. The lighting team have made use of the garden surrounds by directing light onto the stone walls when O’Hare describes scenes on ramparts; they have lit the three palm trees behind the stage, between which, dead center, there glows a lamp during a few scenes, representing different things, but ultimately achieving an eerie, all-seeing-eye effect.
Bassist Brian Ellingsen creates a haunting musical accompaniment, and is really O’Hare’s non-verbal sidekick. O’Hare addresses him and he responds with music. Sometimes it is Ellingsen’s task to move the story along and prevent O’Hare from going off on too much of a tangent. The sounds he creates on his double bass are haunting, jagged, raw, lyrical, and surprising. The two performers have wonderful timing together, and they always seem to be listening and responding to each other.
There are moments in An Iliad that will make you shed a tear for humankind. There are moments of deadly seriousness, and there are moments of clever, dark humor. An Iliad does a magnificent job of retelling this Greek epic, making it accessible and timeless to the uninitiated; it’s sweeping, sobering, it hits you in the solar plexus, and it puts into staggering perspective just how obsessed with war-mongering humans have always been and continue to be.