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Adelaide Festival review: The Iliad – Out Loud

Adelaide Festival

Homeric poetry was brought to vivid life by William Zappa in this innovative nine-hour production at the Adelaide Festival.

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So why is “Out Loud” so important? The Iliad, our first great work of Western literature, came from a longstanding oral tradition of bards who sang the stories of heroes, which were eventually written down when the ancient Greeks developed writing from the Phoenicians around 750BC.

This Adelaide Festival performance at the Scott Theatre was a modern rendition of Homer’s original, where the poet would have performed for 16 hours over five or six nights; here, we had the nine-hour adaptation performed in three parts over one day, with 90-minute breaks between each part and separate ticketing for each part.

Who would have thought? Obviously, William Zappa did. As the creator of the adaptation of Homer’s work as well as its director and principal actor, he is to be applauded for bringing this one to stage. It is as close to a re-enactment as we are ever going to see – quite an achievement, coming as it does in an age of instant entertainment gratification and reputedly reduced attention spans.

In his preamble to the audience, Zappa introduced The Iliad as also being the beginning of our theatre tradition, as people for the first time would pay to listen to an accomplished stranger sing the stories of the Trojan War, which had occurred 400 or so years before. He also claims it as the first great action movie, with its acute descriptions of violence and a bit of sex thrown in, too. 

The stage was framed by two solid coppery bronze screens, bringing to mind clanging martial shield imagery. A percussionist (with no fewer than seven cymbals) and a player of the traditional Greek oud instrument provided excellent ambience throughout. In front of them was a circle of sand where the reading and action took place.

The four actors appeared in plain black pants, bare feet and neutral single-colored shirts in variants of sea green and grey. They didn’t exactly sing in this production, but recited from hand-held scripts.

Zappa took the entirety of the first part solo. He brought us into the story of the disagreement between Achilles and Agamemnon in the Greeks’ camp outside Troy. He was then joined by fellow actors Heather Mitchell, Blazey Best and Socratis Otto, who read various parts and brought up the tempo through conversations which had been snappily edited from the original.

The audience was engaged by the wise counsels of Nestor and Hephaestos, and the persuasive oratory of Odysseus. Many aspects of Homer’s poetry shone through in this live setting, especially his frequent lengthy and colorful similes, which burst over the stage with a vibrant richness that they cannot achieve on the page.

The actors have taken pains to present all the Greek figures as personalities, particularly the Gods. Zeus was not the thundering and declaiming stereotype we might expect, but a slightly harried figure acceding to the wishes of the female Gods (Aphrodite, Hera and Athena, mostly) who would influence him. The lame craftsman Hephaestos was acted to type and actually seemed to speak with a limp! 

From time to time, key dramatic lines from war sections were shouted by all four actors together under bright lighting effects. There was plenty happening to keep the audience enthralled through each of the three-hour sessions. 

The Iliad – Out Loud has finished its brief run, but let’s hope there are more opportunities to revive this seminal work of Western literature.

The Iliad – Out Loud was presented on Saturday and Sunday at the Scott Theatre, University of Adelaide, as part of the Adelaide Festival.

See more Adelaide Fringe and Festival stories and reviews here.

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