First published in The Times, Saturday August 25 2018
We tend to associate adaptations of The Iliad with scale, visual riches, casts of thousands. As recently as 2016, Mark Thomson chose to mark the end of his tenure as artistic director of Edinburgh’s Lyceum with a lavish production of Homer’s epic, as reworked by Chris Hannan, the Scottish playwright.
This short, sharp performance piece from Company of Wolves returns us to the oral roots of ancient Greek storytelling. We gather in a small, almost bare space to watch the writer and performer Ewan Downie enact a ruthlessly condensed version of key episodes, in which the ferocious Greek hero of the Trojan War is enticed into battle to avenge the death of his beloved Patroclus.
Pic: Brian Hartley
Downie’s intense, stylised performance is lent further immediacy by the script, which is written in an unsparing present tense. The piece never flinches in its depiction of the warrior’s rage and anguish not to mention the gorier aspects of warfare and Achilles’s terrible revenge on Hector, the Trojan commander. We hear of flesh ripping from bone as Patroclus’s body is buffeted around following his death; the image is repeated as Downie, in the role of Achilles, his bloodlust unsatisfied, drags Hector’s lifeless body behind his chariot.
Pic: Brian Hartley
The show, co-directed by Ian Spink, runs to barely 45 minutes, yet it seems a major test of endurance for the performer, who appears in combat colours and ends up soaked in his own sweat. On three occasions the text gives way to a series of lamentations, composed by Anna Porubcansky, which startle at first, though their heightened emotional pitch eventually proves a mite too intense.
The show in an absorbing discovery nonetheless: modest in scale, yet rich in drama, emotional resonance and a range of performance traditions.