This adaptation by William Zappa after Homer, has been 7 years in the making. Zappa has researched 17 translations, travelled far and wide, testing the work. He always knew Homer came from a tradition of professional guilds of storytelling, the words were meant to be heard. So now with the start originally a commissioned radio drama, the four actors devote themselves to the storytelling with their voice their primary instrument but delivered as if a staged reading with script in hand, moving in and out of the central sand circle.
I must immediately acknowledge only a limited visit to Homer as a student of literature. It is the oldest western writing surviving, attributed to Homer (mostly – but that is the debate around many very old writers Shakespeare included). 3000 years old. Written in the mid eighth century BCE. Earlier than the festivals of Greek Tragedy with which we might be a little more familiar. So it sits, Epic, it is after all still 24 books told in 3 parts and 9 hours. But Zappa has allowed intentionally in his direction (supported by Sport for Jove and specifically Damian Ryan) to become a resonance of our very modern world. Attempting to make the world of Homer’s Iliad, at once, an Australian Soap Opera, an HBO series with recaps and reminders, and I thought inconsistently, a colloquialism that ‘played’ with his characters; be they kings, princes or indeed gods.
William Zappa as creator and lead narrator introduces us to the play’s part’s focus. Although it seems over 90% might be here seeing the production in full complement today like me. He tells us the origins of the Homer version might have been told across a three-day festival and might have been the first theatre experience where strangers come together to hear the story rather than the storytelling of families and small communities around the fire each night. The epic is not only supported by a terrific cast comprising Heather Mitchell, Blazey Best, Socratis Otto and of-course William Zappa but also the musicians accompany brilliantly the work in setting tone and resonance yet mostly very subtly. Percussionist Michael Askill surrounded by gongs, cymbals, drums and bells chimes and alongside him Hamed Sadeghi playing traditional instruments including the Oud.
But I digress, Zappa has done a wondrous thing. Bringing Homer to the people. So many of whom might know some names, some relations, some history. Helen of Troy has been designed into modern film, stolen from Menelaus having fallen in love with Paris the cause of the Trojan war. The gods Zeus, Athena, Hera and Apollo live large in Percy Jackson. The Trojan war a reminder of the Trojan horse device. This much we know.
Yet now we will hear and witness a story with drive, passion and purpose as much as a purposeless provocation around which there must be a better out? The fruitlessness and futility of war lives large in this story. The humanity of the characters’ fury, passion, love and vengeance. Does a war story as this glorify war, and trivialise humanity when the gods so often interfere? Or does it minimise the gods all knowing all powerful intervention? This Zappa has allowed by delivering the gods characterisations with a lackadaisical response to their impact or control of fate. They do indeed receive the most common laughter from the house. They swear, mock, tease and disrespect each other. Indeed, the list of players, that we the audience might keep up, is mounted on either side of the stage and includes those gods who side with either the Greeks or the Trojans, in this the Iliad, the final 40 days of the 10-year war.
The setting was so simple, the central “orkestra”** marked by a circle of sand. Moved for each part. Behind this the musicians set before a backdrop of a seemingly woven embossed fabric of burnt orange/bronze and a muddy shadow rising from the ground along the bottom. With side and floor lighting it changes shades and colour effect which also has a direct impact on the story changes. So much is very graphic but it becomes part and parcel of the described experiences and is delivered expertly layering the theatrical visual that we all see in our minds eye.
The four performers enter the sand circle at times in turn narrating, at others in dialogue. Part one it is even and reminds us of the landscape and borders of the Greeks entrance by ship to the Trojan shoreline. Part two the war itself the sand has been writhed to create a wall or battlement breakable at a key point in the story telling. Part three the circle story with rising in the centre a smaller circular pyre where Hector’s body can be brought in the final moments. The actors all bring a power of focus and at times terrific gravitas to each role they bring to life. Each performer is at times a narrator or a god or the opposing parties Greek or Trojan. The story has a reflection on the nature of humanity’s great failings we cannot suggest the gods themselves did not have failings but indeed all too often demonstrated a human flaw or two.
Zappa’s adaptation has been to manifest the work for the hearing of “Australian” ears and so has many of the roles relayed by the four actors very distinctly nasal Aussie voices. At times this choice might just a fraction diminish their story. The character’s voices are each revealed informally delivered in various Australian “accent”, the actors each more or less successful. Heather’s “Aussie”ness heralded laughter yet almost more in jovial mockery. She doesn’t quite pull it off. A director’s choice but for me loosened the resonance of the narrative and poetry at times. This was when they spoke in dialogue rather than the narrators direct address to the audience.
The fact that the work is ‘script in hand’ does not diminish the ‘theatricality’ of the presentation style. Most often they repeat their characters so we realise some familiarity in their physical stance and vocal accent choices when they return for each. The further the story goes the more experienced we become as audience with just as much practice in the conventions. I must compliment Zappa, I lost focus only at times really due to the length of the experience (audiences were given the choice of watching each part across three nights or in one day) across one whole day. I am engrossed in the lives and deaths of the characters, the interferences or not of the gods and the final outcome. I feel more familiar with Homer and the Iliad now I have witnessed it Out Loud. Thank you William Zappa!
This production played as part of the Sydney Festival upstairs at Belvoir Street between the 23rd and 27th January, 2019.
** Orkestra – the round central playing space of the ancient Greek amphitheatres of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.
Director William Zappa
Assistant Director Damien Ryan
Actors Heather Mitchell, Blazey Best, Socratis Otto and William Zappa
Percussion Michael Askill
Oud Hamed Sadeghi
Set and Costume Design Mel Liertz
Lighting design Sian James-Holland
Sound Tegan Nicholls
Production and Stage Manager Farlie Goodwin
Photographer/Videographer Hugh Hamilton