William Zappa takes on Homer’s epic for this theatrical marathon at Sydney Festival
If you the plays, films and books that are being written now back to the birth of their narrative shape, form and type, you’d probably land on a pair of epic poems by Homer – The Odyssey and The Iliad. These are heroes’ journeys, complex studies of social realities, grand myth, and, in the case of The Iliad, an early warning about the brutal cost of war.
That final point is the driving force behind William Zappa’s The Iliad Out Loud. The actor/writer originally conceived this project – a live performance of most of The Iliad (excising the books that historians agree were not authored by Homer, or ones that can be streamlined and neatly summarised to keep the story moving apace) – for ABC Radio Drama. You can tell; the emphasis here is on the words and the images they create.
The Iliad is an account of the Trojan War, told from a multitude of sides: the Athenians, the Trojans, and the Gods, who interfered many times, for many different reasons. We follow Helen of Troy, a pawn in a battle that treats her as an object; her now-husband, the cocky Paris; strapping Athenian warrior Achilles, his dearest friend Patroclus, and Hector, the man who kills him; we bear witness to bodies falling, and falling, and falling. As Zappa reminds us, the war was fought not far from the front of Gallipoli – a name many Australians associate with another senseless and bloody loss of life.
Scored by Michael Askill on percussion and Hamed Sadeghi on oud – the action is partly driven by this percussive, yearning melody – Zappa shares reading duties with three other actors: Blazey Best, Heather Mitchell and Socratis Otto. Each have scripts in hand (to memorise nine hours of epic poetry would be an epic and unnecessary feat), and bring their own spin to the language. Zappa reads like a storyteller would to a captive audience; his modulated voice and subtle acting choices capture some of the joy of being read to as a young person. Best grounds her characters in refreshing realism – she is always acting – and brings the energy of the room up. Mitchell’s narrative tone is both wry and grave; she’s electric to watch. And Otto, in muscular delivery, is the soldier. He represents the warriors of Athens and Troy, their helplessness in a battle beyond their control, their desires and their very real losses.
Before each of its three parts, Zappa pulls out examples of the text – the way an arrow is described slicing through air, and how its motion alters our perspective from shooter to victim – to emphasise their effect and highlight their artistry. He also editorialises, prompting us to consider the function of The Iliad as a text, and as a comment on human folly.
These editorial comments are valuable and engaging, but they’re also one of the most exciting things about The Iliad Out Loud, and they exist outside of the play itself. This is a shame; the production’s best moments are when it transcends narrative and provides insight and depth, or becomes drama (particularly for the death of Patroclus) but when our best sources of authorial intent – Zappa’s unique point of view – run parallel to the script rather than within it, the potential for dramatic richness is lessened. What if we felt his view that Homer condemned war in the performance itself, rather than looking to a textual addendum for this feeling?
Zappa is adamant that The Iliad was meant to be spoken, and not read, but nine hours of The Iliad feels a little akin to homework – watching it might make you hungry for those moments when the characters seem to possess the narrators, giving us full-bodied performance. When that happens, we laugh, we mourn, we feel. Those moments are the precious ones.