Australian-born Lloyd Newson founded DV8 Physical Theatre in London in response to what he felt was the superficiality of contemporary dance. Addressing socio-political issues without pretention or abstraction, DV8’s aim was to express its ideas through a clear narrative brought to life by carefully-cast performers who could act and entertain as well as they could dance. Keeping it real, as it were — and Enter Achilles certainly does that, to memorable effect.
Working-class men, played by dancers from iconic British dance company Ballet Rambert, gather in a pub, their Fred Perry shirts and straight-leg jeans proclaiming membership of the English casuals subculture that goes hand in hand with the alcohol-fuelled violence and rampant masculinity of football hooliganism.
Yet before the men step in raucous glee onto Ian MacNeill’s strangely unsettling set — a stark no-frills English pub, all mirrors, angles and skewed-perspectives, the graffiti to the left of an Exit sign placing it firmly in contemporary context with a scribbled B and R — the audience becomes voyeur as one of the men, Scott, writhes on the pub floor alone, embracing a sex doll. It’s as intimate and tender as if Scott were with a real girlfriend he loves; a guarded, private moment that exposes something vulnerable in him, a need for tenderness without interacting with a real woman carrying echoes of the #metoo movement.
Just as this sense of vulnerability grows intense to the point of discomfort, Scott’s horseplay relieves the audience with a belly laugh. And then the rest of the lads come rollicking in, pints of beer aloft, heads held back, chanting “En-ger-luund! En-ger-luund!”
We sense the danger, the risk of the other men witnessing the vulnerability of one of their own. In a 2019 interview, Newson said: “One of the questions we asked back in 1995 when making Enter Achilles was, ‘We accept men have historically oppressed women, but how oppressive have men been to themselves?’.”
The alternating discomfort, hilarity, outrageousness, fear and threat of violence sets the pattern for what follows, a roller coaster ride set to a perfectly curated playlist, reflecting the dynamics of these men as they dodge and dive, mooning, jostling, taunting each other, as they bond in savage masculine camaraderie before ducking away to hide their vulnerabilities.
Mesmerising to watch, the technically-virtuosic dancers puff and crow, rolling over one another in mock fights, aggressive or homoerotically-charged in turn without spilling a drop of their pints. The undercurrent of violence that continually threatens to erupt is dissipated with humour before building again: when an outsider appears, dressed in baggy shirt and trousers, sipping a glass of wine, or when the pub TV broadcasts a speech by extreme right nationalist and co-founder of the anti-Islamic English Defence League, Tommy Robinson. It erupts, finally, when Scott is discovered in his tender embrace with his girlfriend, the plastic sex doll.
In turn confronting, hilarious, threatening, tender and sad, Enter Achilles is an unforgettable performance of a 25- year-old masterpiece, perfectly re-pitched as a reflection on masculinity, English and otherwise, in this age of Brexit and the #metoo movement. Truly a Festival highlight.
Enter Achilles was presented as part of Adelaide Festival at the Dunstan Playhouse March 13-15
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