On the battlefield of Troy the scene is set for a final conflict. Only the invincible Achilles can tip the scales of war but humiliated by the leader of the Achaean army, Agamemnon king of Mycenae, Achilles is stubbornly refusing to join the fray. Agamemnon took Achilles' girl. One of the many girls and boys the demi-god Achilles has at his disposal but nonetheless, as it is always the case, the personal becomes political and Achilles threatens to become an apostate and sail back across the Aegean, leaving the Grecians at the mercy of their Trojan captors.

Homer’s Iliad, a bellicose sequel to the Odyssey inaugurates the Western literary canon. It bequeaths us all the hallmarks of powerful dramaturgy: Homecoming, time perceived and time lived, glory, wrath and fate. Although the story covers only a few weeks in the final year of the war, the Iliad stretches into the future prophesising Achilles’ death and the sack of Troy. It folds back onto the past, extending and collapsing human motivation and the supernatural in ways that few narratives can promise to do. The Iliad’s fiercely temperamental 15,693 lines of text, written in Homeric Greek, a literary mix of Ionic Greek and other dialects, is pretty untameable by typical scholarly standards. Few scholars have attempted translations, among them, Pope, Lattimer, Robert Fagles and most recently the brilliant Caroline Alexander. Its dramatisation is an almost impossible task and Thomson’s undertaking at The Lyceum this year speaks volumes for the man’s commitment to big narratives. The Iliad is Thomson's final production as Artistic Director of the Lyceum, the culmination of 13 seasons and over 30 productions including Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the Marriage of Figaro, Jo Clifford's Every One, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author and numerous others.

Homeric pathos is unsurpassed. The Iliad and the Odyssey carry on their warrior's shoulders the weight of 3000 years' worth of human history, exile, conquest, loss, vengefulness, Eros and forgiveness. They equally carry the prophesy of pretty much every single typology of narrative a good scholar can think of: epic, tragedy, comedy, romantic pursuit, the super-natural, desire, discourse and meta-discourse. It's all in there and they've all borrowed from it: Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Joyce, Miller, to mention but a few. Thomson superbly drives the narrative to a psychologically and actionably cathartic conclusion with the hero Achilles at its helm and all the complex meanderings of his rancour as a political and ethical act. Chris Hannan’s writing skilfully treats the epic’s monumental scale with respect and a deep sense of duty. Claire McKenzie, the composer deserves five starts for bringing the atmospheric and the ancient into holy matrimony as do the actors’ vocals for delivering a mystical musicality enough to bring you close to the supernatural.

Ben Turner’s delivery of Achilles is simply a five star act. He doesn't just “act” the part, he embodies the struggle. Daniel Poyser’s Ulysses is witty, calm, a seasoned diplomat and Benjamin Dilloway’s Hector equally physical, tormented and torn between political and private duty. Ron Donachie shoulders the heavy burden of both Agamemnon, the despot, and Priam, the wise king of Troy, two diametrically opposed figures which he delivers with astonishing naturalness.

Before I go on to talk about Emmanuella Cole’s Hera, I would like to expand on the meta-discursive element and reflect on Homer's women. Historical consciousness did not permit Homer today's expansive knowledge of the historical outcomes of patriarchy that followed in the 3000 years since the poems' inception. There are numerous female characters in the Iliad but I will only talk about the goddess Hera who, in Homer, validates the acceptance of the matriarch as a political force. Homer shows her as subtle and manifold in her self-representation. In fairness to both Thomson and Hannan, she isn’t the easiest of dramatic characters to transmute from epic to dramaturgical: She us purposely elusive. As she herself declares, “It is hard for gods to be shown in their true shape”. In an otherwise brilliant production, my only reproach is that Hannan’s Hera is slight, her depth and complexity purposely unnoticed. Cole, clad in a garish gold leather bikini and puffing on a cigarette gives us not a Hera but a cross between Dynasty’s Joan Collins and a Desperate Housewife. Hera in the Iliad is a seeing goddess, one who also bestows insight. Her creative vision enlarges the imaginative scope of the epic thanks to her noetic mode of seeing brings unity to what is otherwise disparate and heterogeneous, including the community of gods themselves.

What Hera places in Achilles’ phrénes is not a private grudge; it is a political idea: to summon an assembly. This Hera-inspired gathering is the first deliberative assembly that takes place in the Iliad; it is at this meeting, called to discover the cause of the devastating plague, that Agamemnon fatefully insults Achilles. Oscillating between the foreground of the epic action and the psychology of the background, Hera’s anger, Zeus implies, will be disastrous, cosmic in its scale. The verb Zeus uses is noesis: it signifies mental perception or insight as well as physical seeing. At this moment, Zeus’ concern is hardly the banal anxiety of an errant husband worried that he has been discovered in a dalliance. Rather, it is a political concern, a concern for the future of his rule. And because Zeus is the ruler of the universe, it is also a cosmic concern. He wants very much to control what Hera sees and knows. Hannan’s dialogue fails to show us this. The final scene on Olympus tries to do justice to Hera as Genesis of the Universe. It’s a valiant attempt but not one earned by the preceding subplot portraying her as a manipulating and resenting spouse, sadly drawing on the stereotype of the bored, bourgeois housewife neglected by her naughty husband. It would have been a dramaturgical temptation to stick Hera in this well-rehearsed compartment of a resentful, meddling housewife, and it did get some laughs but not one befitting this big, courageous Iliad. Cole’s dramatic spectrum is, however, admirable. She is a fantastic presence on stage and her ability to give us both sight and insight is quite brilliant. Only in this instance, I won’t let my admonition about Hera shadow the fact that this is an epic production, one that must be seen and studied by us all as citizens of a world where, rancour, lust, bellicosity, revenge and conflict are still as rampant as they were in Homer’s Ilium.

Mark Thomson’s future plans aren't officially known yet. One would hope that he has more Iliads in mind for us, indeed that the man to follow in his footsteps as Artistic Director of the Lyceum, the playwright David Greig, proves to be a leader of similar scale and ambition. Suffice to say, productions of this scale are not the norm. But they should be encouraged and they should be supported. Just to remind us of the fact that, despite our illusions to the contrary, our human nature hasn’t learned its lessons just yet.

Homer's Iliad merits five stars. Thomson's, most definitely another five.
Effie Samara © 2016


Photographer credit: Drew Farrell
Image: (l-r) Daniel Poyser, Emanuella Cole.

The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh presents the World Premiere of

The Iliad
20 April – 14 May 2016

By Chris Hannan
Directed by Mark Thomson, Artistic Director of The Lyceum
Design by Karen Tennent, Lighting Design by Simon Wilkinson, Costume Design by Megan Baker, Composer/Sound Design by Claire McKenzie

Ensemble cast: Jennifer Black, Peter Bray, Emanuella Cole, Richard Conlon, Amiera Darwish, Ben Dilloway, Ron Donachie, Melody Grove, Mark Holgate, Reuben Johnson, Daniel Poyser and Ben Turner

Author's review: