Belvoir St Theatre, January 24
You can’t do it passively. This is the blood and fury of war, the lies and greed of men and the fickleness of the gods made incarnate in the greatest epic poem ever written. Actor/director/adaptor William Zappa began work on the project seven years ago, and now that it finally sucks breath upon a stage you can feel him chew upon the words with relish; hear him spit out the taunts and challenges, and savour the beauty of the imagery.
Zappa drew upon 17 English translations of The Iliad to restore Homer’s work to its rightful place as a performance piece, in this instance for four actors, Zappa being joined by Heather Mitchell, Blazey Best and Socratis Otto, plus Michael Askill (percussion) and Hamed Sadeghi (oud, tar, setar). He divided the work into three three-hour staged readings, with this night, Part 2, covering Books Six to 14.
Besides having the two women play the female gods, Zappa and assistant director Damien Ryan spread the narration and male roles around on a gender-blind basis. A given actor does not retain a specific role for the show’s duration, and, unsurprisingly, the monumental text is read rather than recited. Yet there is not just more drama, but more theatricality implicit in Homer’s Trojan War masterpiece than in many works penned specifically for the stage, thanks to the electrifying language. Whether describing a spear thrust shivering a warrior’s skull, or the deathless gods bickering over which mortals to favour (like a betting syndicate disputing which horse to back), the verse is thrillingly vibrant.
The pivotal point of Part Two comes when, with the Greeks in a tight spot, Agamemnon, their singularly unlikeable king, agrees to try appeasing the sulking Achilles, the super-hero par excellence. The problem is that in the scene where a deputation tries to bribe Achilles with untold treasures, Otto lacks the bone-shaking vocal vigour to be Achilles, just as he had previously failed to convince as Hector, the most truly noble of the work’s killing-machines.
Zappa possesses the greatest vocal range for differentiating characters, and while Best’s persuasiveness varies (including being a commendable Great Ajax), Mitchell is more consistently en point, whether as Agamemnon, or especially playing Hera as she sets about seducing Zeus, so as to get him to take his eye off the murderous wargame for a time. Sometimes the collective delivery fails to convey the story’s breakneck forward momentum, but that is certainly not the case in Book 13, when Best and Mitchell share the narration in breathless overlapping bursts – a technique that perhaps could have been used more.