Holding Achilles. Produced by Legs On The Wall, Dead Puppet Society, Sydney Festival, Brisbane Festival, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Glass Half Full Productions.
Sydney Festival at Carriageworks Bay 17, January 19-22, 2203
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Director and Co-Creator David Morton
Movement Director and Co-Creator Joshua Thomson
Creative Producer Nicholas Paine
Lighting Designer Ben Hughes
Sound Designer Tony Brumpton
Rigging Designer David Jackson
Composers Tony Buchen and Chris Bear with Montaigne
Puppet Design Dead Puppet Society
Music performed live by Montaigne
Dramaturg Louise Gough
Set Co-Designers Anna Cordingley and David Morton
Associate Director Matt Seery
Costume Designer Anna Cordingley
Associate Producer James Beach
Achilles Stephen Madsen
Paris / Chiron Nic Prior
Patroclus Karl Richmond
Briseis Christy Tran
Ajax / Hector / Puppeteer (Baby Bear) Ellen Bailey
Priam Caroline Dunphy
Odysseus John Batchelor
Agamemnon / Lead Puppeteer (Bear) Lauren Jackson
Ensemble / Counterweight Johnas Liu
Meneleus / Peleus Christopher Tomkinson
The ideas behind this conception of the Trojan War are interesting and worthwhile. But the style of presentation – in the writing of the dialogue, the acting, the sound composition and singing, and the symbolic aerial dance work – makes the performance a re-enactment of an idea, rather than a creative work of art with the emotional impact that the ideas deserve.
Perhaps the intention was to attract a young generation brought up on The Game of Thrones, but subtlety is not the word for what needed to be an intimate development of the love relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, nor for the depth of anguish felt by Patroclus as the machinations of the powerful play out in the continuing use of violence for political ambition.
Considering what is happening in Ukraine right now, and the changing – and improving – attitudes on the human rights of people across a wide range of differences, the issues arising in the story of how, why and what happened in Ancient Greece are highly relevant today.
(Wikipedia records: Those who believe that the stories of the Trojan War are derived from a specific historical conflict usually date it to the 12th or 11th century BC, often preferring the dates given by Eratosthenes, 1194–1184 BC, which roughly correspond to archaeological evidence of a catastrophic burning of Troy VII, and the Late Bronze Age collapse. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trojan_War )
But Holding Achilles mixes up theatrical genres in a way that tells a story – through a kind of ‘grand’ style interspersed with action in aerial acrobatic form symbolising warfare almost like circus – yet with spoken dialogue in very ordinary modern day language. The massively over-loud music and singing is oppressive rather than impressive; the dance sequences are far too long, seeming indulgent rather than progressing the drama; the spoken scenes are ‘acted out’ rather than expressed from within. Only a few of Odysseus’s explanations of political necessities and some of Patroclus’s expression of frustration at the acceptance of violence create some empathy on our part.
If you want a modern, highly effective – and wonderfully affective – account, written with depth of characterisation and achieving the kind of impact that Holding Achilles misses, you can’t go past the novels by Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (Penguin 2018) and The Women of Troy (Hamish Hamilton 2021).
There you will find the story of the woman Briseis, Achilles’ concubine, with a sincere interpretation which I think reflects more deeply on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles than Holding Achilles gives us.
The messages about the need for love as individuals and for non-violence in international politics are clearly there in the Holding Achilles version of Homer’s Iliad – and surely we need to hear what David Morton, Nicholas Paine and Joshua Thomson have to say. The production is big and loud, but needs much more subtle development for the emotional impact worthy of its themes to come through.