By Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson
New Zealand Festival
Opera House | March 12-14
Epic in all proportions, An Iliad is an absorbing piece of theatre that excites the imagination and brings energy to Homer’s timeless poem. Co-authors Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson have masterfully plucked out pieces of the ancient text, focusing on the conflict between Achilles and Hector. The script was developed over the course of five years and included much research and improvisation that would later be included in the final text. The show is a very accessible and enjoyable interpretation of an ancient work performed by O’Hare in an extraordinary display of space, light, and text.
Director Peterson’s vision has allowed for two possible theses: either war is a waste, or war is intrinsic to human nature. Her production designers have channelled this in a communion of ideas with O’Hare as the narrator (who could be seen as Homer). The empty void created by scenic designer Rachel Hauck enabled O’Hare to fill the space with his voice and movement. O’Hare has a broad range of vocal temperament and used his voice effectively for the demands of the storytelling. This was especially so during moments of rage as Achilles, or even the airy Apollo causing the final blow to Patroclus. And the echo effect from the floor mics added dramatic impact that for a moment felt like I was inside a cinema. Mark Bennett’s sound design was rich, timely, and measured. And although there was very little on stage except for a few pieces of stage furniture and storage boxes stacked unevenly upstage left to right, the simplicity worked like a gem. Coupled with Scott Zielinski’s harsh light design, the apocalypse was always on the brink as you felt that one war would follow another. The narrator is almost like a wise old man that nobody ever listened to, but would always be right in saying, “You see.”
The opening stage picture of a lone man wearing a perched hat, shrugged over his knees, lit from the side, and reciting out loud in Greek the opening lines of The Iliad, was powerful, sensual theatre at its best. O’Hare begins to enlighten his audience with a story, from long long ago, that he is compelled to share with us. The relationship between performer and audience is established from the get-go; O’Hare makes no bones about it. He needs us to tell this story. When his ‘muse’ finally shows up, he is able to narrate and so begins another point of reference for the narrator; between himself and his live sound device—Brian Ellingsen on a double bass. Ellingsen’s evocative bass playing added invaluable resonance to the storytelling.
O’Hare is simply terrific. It is a feast for any acting student to watch as O’Hare plays with the empty space, filling it with people, places, and props. Although the depth and width of the Opera House Stage could easily have swallowed a solo actor up, not O’Hare—his control of the space was admirable. On occasion, it was difficult to hear some of the text being said. O’Hare had a slight tendency to sometimes take his audience’s ears for granted. But on the whole, and looking at the big picture, this is a minor criticism for what was a stupendous performance.