Monday 21 September 2015

The Iliad – Madlenianum, Belgrade

[seen 18/09/15]

To be honest, I’d never really thought much about the theatrical potential of The Iliad before this year. Now – like Oresteias – three turn up at once (the other two Iliads being The Almeida’s in August and National Theatre of Wales’s version, which opens in two days). This performance at BITEF (Beogradski Internacionalni Teatarski Festival) is a three-way collaboration between the National Drama Theatre of Slovenia in Ljubljana, the Ljubljana City Theatre and Cankar Hall (big performance venue, also Ljubljana).*

The most obvious reason that I’ve not thought much about the Iliad *as theatre* is because it’s primarily “a book”. Yes, of course it’s An Epic Poem, thought to have originated as Oral Tradition, and becuase it’s also one of The Oldest Books In The World, not much ancillary evidence survives about the conditions in which it was originally performed. But it is still *a book* now. And England is nothing if not resistant to regarding anything other than texts-written-specificially-to-be-performed-in-theatre as texts for theatre. (And I’m nothing if not English.)

Directed by Jernej Lorenci, and adaptated for the stage by Lorenci, Matic Starina and Eva Mahkovic from a translation of Homer by Anton Sovrè, this version makes an incredible case for itself; not only as an adaptation of an ancient classic, but as living, breathing, moving, relevant theatre for *right now*.

The human brain is a remarkable thing, and, to all intents and purposes, that is where this production of the Iliad is set. All the more so if you’re watching it via the surtitles projected either side of the stage (no idea whose English translation – presumably from the Slovenian text – is used, but as often with surtitles, the necessity to cut to bare essentials makes for a compelling literary version in itself).

The production is essentially performed on an “undressed” stage, mostly on a thrust in front of a large iron safety curtain. The safety curtain is up before the show begins, and when it finishes. It is raised just once in the piece close to the end of the first half, when it rises to reveal a mown cornfield with freshly baled hay, and the orange light of a sunrise or sunset and thick haze; Achilles’s mother, Thetis, sings a mournful song, while her son sulks in front of a dressing-room mirror (complete with lightbulbs round it) in “his tent” (there are no tents). This, incidentally was also a fascinating revelation – that Achilles here feels like a tragic hero in the mould of Hamlet before his final, fatal duel. This also gives the narrative a pleasing new slant.

I say “undressed”, but actually it’s sort of untidily set up as if for a small orchestra (ho ho, Greek joke?). The performers come out mostly dressed accordingly, white shirts and black suits for the men (except Achilles, who doesn’t bother with a shirt). The women (of whom there are fewer than men 8:4) are dressed more in a range of costumes across the ages – one in ancient robes, one in Greek? Solvenia? “National Costume” looking things, one in maybe 1940s film-star stuff, and one in what could be what women in orchestras wear when men where black suits (a kind of sleeveless adapted suit – fashionable and serious-looking).

At the start a bloke comes on after the other performers, comes to the front of the stage – conductor-like – and just starts speaking the text into a microphone (an approach familiar from the Almeida version, except that here I don’t get any class-information from his voice. Which is an indescribable relief. I have no idea if – if I was fluent in Slovenian – I’d be unconsciously able to pin him down to a particular region, city, and then social class within five vowels. And I don’t know whether being able to do so would make the same difference as it does in UK. Are “The Greeks” “Posh” in Slovenia? Is this not the most ridiculous question in the world? Thanks, England).

Because this is a 2hr30 performance (one interval), the text goes at quite a pace. Gone are the interminable lists of sodding ships and recurring adjectives. We just get what sounds like (and even reads like in English) flinty, fast, verse. Characters and their motivations are unfussily, omnisciently set out. We know who’s who, what’s what and why. It’s lucid, arresting and, necessarily, squalid.

The director’s notes on the production (man, Slovenian blurb is better than most UK criticism) are worth reprinting, not least because having seen the production first, I can say that they represent precisely what the production has gone on to look at. And I’d not put it any better:

“The Iliad is the bedrock of Europe and its primal origin. It is its genesis. Its first seed, its source. The Iliad is Europe’s first epic poem, it is the first novel, opera, the initial spectacle, the first MTV. The Iliad is part of all of us. Everyone knows Zeus and Hera, Athena and Ares, the fair Helen and Paris, Agamemnon and Menelaus, Achilles and Patroclus. Why, therefore, is this mega-work, this excessively long and compulsory read, so deeply embedded within European civilisation? Whence arises this fascination of contemporary man with the ancient story, wherefrom the amazement at the ostensibly long gone heroic feats, doomed love, fatal consequences?

“How it is possible that this great work, of almost divine proportions, is considered a canon, a dogma, an ideal and a model for all posterity, when The Iliad is nothing but a brutal human slaughterhouse? When the basic motives of the protagonists are almost nothing but envy, greed, lust, vengeance, murderous, destructive and violent impulses?”**

Such a good question, and somehow – and I’m not entirely how – this production manages to stage “just the story” as precisely this question.

Obviously, it’s down to the dramaturgy. Let’s just establish that it’s much more sophisticated than reading the whole thing in alternating tones of sarcasm and scepticism and it never once projects a video image of anything at all – no ISIS, no Greek Finanacial Crisis, no refugee crisis, no recent or ancient wars, no ex-Yugoslav conflict footage – and yet that is the exact effect. And at the same time the story retains its dignity. The characters are still taken as seriously as they are by Homer. There are enhancements: there is added music – performed live; everything from Ancient Greek/“generalised (historical?) Balkan/Middle-Eastern” (I’m no musicologist) to Serge Gainsbourg – there are moments of comedy and then moments of profound savagery, and neither encroaches on the value of the other. There’s a lightness about the way that these moments are allowed to co-exist which is brilliantly managed. Being amused doesn’t cheapen the violence or make it less violent. And the violence – crucially abstract, rather than photorealist...

So, yes, there’s this incredible mix of musical styles. From plain speech (as music?), to the drumming of the dactylic hexameter on the microphones, to almost modernist use of harp, through to lounge music, a cover of J’t’aime. And the performances range – in the first half from seated or standing narration, through to pretty much psychological realism, or at leat some sort of embodiment of the part alongside narration duties.

Then, in the second half – essentially all battle – certain elements change. The physicality is more pronounced. We know, more or less, who is “playing” who. One performer becomes “all the characters who are being killed”. The “conductor”/main-narrator plays on an ancient instrument something like an Iranian dotar, but with a single string, and now sings his narration as a kind of ancient Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern lament (I apologise for not being able to be more culturally specific, although I have no idea how much cultural specificity is involved on the part of the creators, and how much is indeed “generalised ancient middle-eastern”). Two of the women punctuate this with that high-pitched trilling wail that I also associate with the middle east/North Africa. In a sense, my discomfort around describing this is largely absent (it felt) from the appropriation-happy production itself. But, as I say, I also don’t really know enough about Slovenian/ex-Yugoslavian/ex-Ottoman Empire culture to known how they’d describe the provenance – it is important to remember in this context that Yugoslavia, as was, was previously divided between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and Belgrade was pretty much the meeting point of “East” and “West” (scare quotes because, clearly North and South, really). So, the music is incredibly evocative, not only for my modern, Western associations with it, but also for the history of the region and beyond.

The way the violence is staged too is brilliant – a kind of cross between slow-motion naturalism and contemporary dance, half illustrative, and half an abstraction of the pain of dying in battle.

And then there’s the killing of Hector by Achilles. Which is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen on a stage. Astonishing purely through it’s simplicty and brutality. Hector-performer is curled almost foetal on the floor, under a plain, round metal shield, and Achilles-performer takes a massive metal pole and relentlessly batters it. Hector sobs into a microphone, but you can only hear a fraction over the noise of metal smashing into metal. The thick metal pole actually sustains damage and bends. The thick metal shield also sustains damage. It’s incredibly visceral, powerful, muscular stuff. Hector-performer is then replaced with half a pig carcass, and Achilles continues to beat this bloody lifeless chunk of meat. And then stabs it a few times, until Hector stops making a sound.

The pig carcass is then cradled tenderly by the narrator, also playing Priam.

This is essentially the end, give or take. There is stillness after to allow for what’s just happened. But it’s somehow so stunning and shattering that the standing ovation that follows is entirely spontaneous and almost immediate.

This ending is – more or less – just the story, simply told, and viscerally enacted. Barely without ornament. But, it works astonishingly well. Yes, we think. That is ancient warfare. And it is somehow present in today. The reasons for that war were so basic as to be contemptible, and they knew that even then. Not much has improved.

I know I seem to have started using the end of every review to petition for UK transfers, but, seriously, Barbican, I’m here to tell you people would love this like they love The Roman Tragedies. For real. Book it.

 *It’s crass to point it out – but this is my first time in Serbia, and the route from the airport to my hotel passed enough buildings that were destroyed by NATO bombing in 1999 that it feels noteworthy – but this means we were watching a performance by one Balkan country which only narrowly avoided all out war with the host nation just under 24 years ago. Moreover, any Serbian my age or older could well have actually fought in the war. So, y’know, *war* feels a damn sight less remote here, than in Britain (which is ironic since we’ve actually been at war pretty much solidly since 2001).

[post-script to the above – the day after I saw this performance I went to this syposium on criticism at International Festivals, and it was fascinating to hear the different critics from different regions/countries give their own perspectives on how *related* to the ex-Yugoslav war this performance was. To the American present it very much was, in much the same way as – I guess – anyone talking in this language and with our limited back-knowledge, will think of that first. The Serbian critic on the panel didn’t think it had much to do specifically with the ex-Yugoslav war, while the Slovenian critic there suggested that calling it the “Yugoslavian Civil War” or anything similar was pretty wrong anyway, and we might more usefully think of it as the US War or the NATO War and think of it in relation to ongoing American imperialism. Which, thinking back those bombed buildings, and Bill Clinton Avenue in Pristina, makes a fuck-tonne of good sense.]

** It continues: “Which of today’s heroes could match the ancient ones? Brad Pitt as Achilles? Is our time suitable for heroes and heroism? Has not the world grown so small as to require nothing but a simple, small-scale man who does not make history, but merely life? Temporary, modest, everyday life?

“Yet The Iliad is part of all of us. Is it indeed possible for a body politic called state not to rest its foundations on blood? Not to exist at the expense of another human being? Is not every type of collectivisation dangerous? Then again: I am never alone, neither at the theatre nor in life. One thing remains certain: The Iliad is part of all of us.”


matocov said...

Just a quick note: the instrument in the second part (he “conductor”/main-narrator plays on an ancient instrument something like an Iranian dotar, but with a single string, and now sings his narration as a kind of ancient Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern lament) in Gusle, a Serbian instrument (

Andrew Haydon said...

Oh, brilliant! Thank you!