Review: Epic and powerful performance of An Iliad

Is humanity doomed to repeat the same mistakes? Despite thousands of years of scientific, theological and humanitarian advancements why do we still find ourselves mourning the deaths of our sons and daughters at the hands of perceived enemies? And are those enemies the ones we should really be fighting? These were just some of the questions this reviewer pondered as he stepped back to reality, and questions that will stay with him for a long time to come.

An Iliad
Winter Fest
TSB Showplace
Reviewed by Martin Quicke

Entering the TSB Showplace, we were greeted with the stark, cold walls of the theatre. Bare concrete stands tall. The stage, usually filled with colour and grandeur was left naked but for a perfectly haphazardly laid out table, brooms stacked against the far wall, exposed lighting and a few road cases. These tools of the trade that normally would be hidden away so as not to break the suspension of disbelief were allowed to be exposed.

An imposing site to behold and a strong indication that what we were about to witness is from far from the ordinary. The setting is minimalistic, yet throughout the performance the audience remained captivated. To create lasting images and convey intense emotion without the benefit of changing a setting or situation is a talent possessed by few and mastered by fewer. Here, we witness mastery.

Under full lights in the auditorium as well as on stage, Michael Hurst makes his contemplative, yet confident entrance. Shuffling onward our itinerant lays out his worldly belongings and takes in his surroundings, and the masterclass begins. Light heartedly, our poet protagonist begins to draw us in. He is charming and roguish, his battered clothing and weathered face hint at untold sorrows behind the bearded smile. With an excited wave of his hands he drags us away from our Friday night and asks us to imagine. He conjures images of vast beaches, of boats as far as they eye can see, rolling fields, villages and off in the distance the towering walls of Troy. Cleverly he rattles off a long list of small New Zealand towns and cities, even towns in Australia, being emptied of their men to go and fight the war. It is easy to forget that Homers The Iliad was written more than 2500 years ago, when the tales of war are so easy related to our own sons being shipped off to die within living memory.  

And so, our poet regales his audience with the songs of battles fought long ago, he cries out to the muses for inspiration and is first left wanting until finally he is joined by the wonderfully adroit Shayne P Carter (Straightjacket Fits and New Zealand Music Hall of fame member). Carter adds another dimension of mystery and mastery to the epic tale as the houselights go down. Ethereal guitar licks, subtle beats intertwining with the poet’s energetic story telling create an atmosphere that leave the audience breathless, more than one hushed “wow” was overheard from neighbouring seats.

As the tale of war and woe continues, more parallels are drawn between this ancient battle and more recent bloodshed. Mans insatiable appetite for destruction, egged on by the old Gods and in our modern world, the new. No longer Aphrodite, Athena, Hermes or Zeus… Today money, oil, politics, religion. Gods never die. They simply change.  The Gods we worship may have changed, but the lives we take in their names remain the same. This sobering thought is driven home by a heartbroken and crestfallen Hurst as he recalls a seemingly never-ending list of wars fought over millennia for the same stupid reason. Pride. The choice in naming this piece An Iliad rather than The Iliad is a choice not by accident. The writers Lisa Paterson and Denis O’Hare draw attention to the fact that this is just another in a long list of a series of disastrous events and miseries.

As the show began, our poet made a throw away remark that he hopes this is the last time he ever has to tell this tale. As Hurst, seemingly beside himself with exhaustion collapses in to his chair to bring the performance to a close we are left with the sinking feeling that with man’s pride growing only stronger and his deep-seated belief that pride comes before empathy, the tale will continue to be told for millennia to come.

Powerful theatre is a rare commodity these days. Challenging an audience to not only bare witness to a battle thousands of years old with nothing more than some clever lighting, costumes and sound would be challenging to anyone lesser than Hurst and Carter. These two gems of New Zealand arts excel and create something truly moving and (if you’ll excuse the pun) Herculean.

Powerful, thought provoking, ethereal and beautifully performed. An Iliad is theatre that is as important as it is captivating.

Reviewed by Martin Quicke