First published in The Times, Wednesday April 27 2016
A stage version of The Iliad, scripted by Chris Hannan and directed by Mark Thomson, is a mouth-watering prospect. The playwright has form when it comes to adaptions of the classics, having penned multi-award-winning productions of Crime and Punishment and The Three Musketeers, while Thomson, who is stepping down as artistic director of the Lyceum, is at his best when marshalling large ensembles through rich, intricate stories.
Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, described by the translator Caroline Alexander as “the Everest of literature”, is indeed a heroic undertaking for the departing director. Yet, while Thomson’s production features the occasional exhilarating scene of violent combat, with swords clashing and blood spattering, its fidelity to its source lies mainly in Hannan’s fascination with the complexities of Homer’s dramatis personae.
Hannan shows how the carnage of war arises from a mindboggling array of provocations, individual creeds and pathologies, from the unwavering sense of duty articulated by Hector, the Trojan warrior (Benjamin Dilloway), to the furious vengeance ignited in Achilles (Ben Turner) by the slaughter of his beloved Patroclus (Mark Holgate). The ostensible catalyst for the ten-year siege (the abduction of Helen by Paris) is dispatched in an amusing scene, in which the Prince of Troy (Peter Bray) is revealed as a flibbertigibbet. “I lose interest in things halfway through,” he shrugs.
The 12-strong cast navigates the blend of humour and seriousness in Hannan’s script honourably, even if the doubling of roles proves confusing and movement is constrained by Karen Tennent’s set, an oppressive structure of classical columns and pediments attached to metal girders which epitomises the clash of influences – classical and contemporary – in the staging. While Claire McKenzie’s music, a mix of battle cry and ululating paean sung by the cast, adds to the atmosphere, the action loses its fizz towards the end, with a drawn-out final scene between Achilles and Ron Donachie’s Priam.
The most powerful presence is Emmanuella Cole, who as Hera, embodies the fascinating idea of the affronted deity with the power to indulge her every whim, wreaking havoc in the process. She and Richard Conlon, as Zeus, capture brilliantly the fatigue and corruption wrought by immortality, with Cole turning on a sixpence between wry humour and something altogether more menacing.