This review was originally written for The Public Reviews .
With four long tables and benches and a stage at the far end, the audience engages in a game of musical chairs as it files into the performance space. The prospect of being without a seat for a nearly two-hour performance is too daunting for some. After much shuffling, enters Agamenmnon demanding Achillies to hand over his lover Breseis and begins this adaptation of Homer’s Iliad. Achillies retires from battle because of this, setting off a chain of events. Luckily for the standing few, the action soon moves into a much wider space next door. But this presents a few problems of its own which we will come back to.
Written by Brian Woolland, the long first act is set in the period of the Trojan War, along with classical text and dialogue. The pace is languid and the melodrama is dragged out, not helped by the sparse space between the performance areas, lacking in intimacy and making the performance feel distant. The much shorter second act, while continuing the story and characters from act one, takes place in the contemporary Middle East with mobile phones and television so there is no mistaking the period. The dialogue also loses the constraints of the classical text of the first and gains a much welcomed dynamism. But the shift is too abrupt and feels as if there is a complete disconnect between the two despite the continuation of the plot.
Created by Border Crossings in association with ASHTAR Theatre of Palestine, there is an attempt to link this story and apply it to the struggle in the Middle East today. Though linkage to the conflict is weak due to the lack of specifics apart from an AK47 or two. It at best merely hints at the suffering of conflicts in general and nothing more.
The performance space is a large disused dairy with exposed brick walls and concrete pillars, which works well for the second act as a modern temporary military hideout, less so as a stage for the classical setting of act one. The use of the space, designed by Will Hargreaves, is excellent in this site specific performance with two main stages against opposite sides and performances taking place throughout the area. There are well coordinated prompts using lighting and sound to direct the audience’s attention as the scenes shift.
The problem is with the audience and/or the lack of direction and advice from the crew. The seating is well laid out by the crew initially giving good sight line and marking out the specific performance areas. But once the audience is introduced to the space its focus is trained on the first stage. Chairs are dragged from all around to point at the stage and the previous organisation is gone, leaving some with poor sight lines. It does not help with the staging of some scenes where one will be staring at an actor’s back for the whole scene which could be avoided by introducing some movement in the performance. These are important aspects for the director Michael Walling to consider for a site specific performance and any stage where the audience sits on three of four sides of the stage. And from the limited view of the performances, Andrew French as Achilles dominates the space with his presence whilst making the rest of the competent cast drift further back into the corners of the space. A little more balance is required.
The staging of the play in this production helps alleviate some of the shortcomings of the text but at the same time, distracts from the dramatic intensity of it. It is ambitious and full of creative ideas, though the execution is lacking.
Photo: Richard Davenport