Review: The Iliad Out Loud, Sydney Festival

After 2800 years surely you can’t be accused of dropping spoilers.
Review: The Iliad Out Loud, Sydney Festival

William Zappa in The Iliad Out Loud. Photo credit: Lisa Tomasetti.

The Iliad, written in the 8th Century BC, is frequently referred to as the oldest surviving work of Western literature. When the Trojan prince Paris abducts the famously beautiful Helen, whose husband is Menelaus King of Sparta, 110,000 Greeks set off to try to win her back. They lay siege to Troy for 10 years: the Iliad focuses on a period of 40 days in the 10th year of the war. Achilles, one of the Greek’s leading warriors, refuses to fight for 20 of the tale’s 24 books, because he was stripped of a woman he ‘won’ as a prize in battle. The inter-Greek feud is eventually healed, and Achilles rejoins the fight, slaying Trojan prince Hector. The tale ends with the funeral of Hector; but not before we see the Gods interfering in affairs, taking sides, and ultimately demonstrating that even they may be subject to fate. After 2800 years surely you can’t be accused of dropping spoilers.

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The Iliad Out Loud began as an ABC radio drama. William Zappa (actor, director, adaptor) created this version with the aid of 17 other translations. The process took him on his own odyssey, as he performed the work-in-progress at ANU, Oxford University, and the Sydney Greek Festival. The aim was to create ‘something for actors to read, and an Australian ear to hear’. The judicious use of modern swear words and colloquial phrases made the text even more lively and dynamic. Zappa notes the Iliad is meant to be heard, not read, quoting Robert Fagles who noted that Homer makes us hearers, whereas Virgil leave us readers.

The performances were pitched just right: energetic and engaging, without losing the oneiric effect that arises as line after line of verse washes over you until you become immersed in the world. Many audience members listened with their eyes closed. The skilled actors made distinguishing between the large cast of characters a simple task. This is a co-production with theatre company Sport for Jove, with Damien Ryan acting as assistant director. Emeritus Professor Elizabeth Minchin acted as adaptation mentor and editor.   

The stage is evocatively decorated with sand to indicate the beach outside Troy, and a bronze background, gesturing to the age. Subtle and effective music is provided by percussionist Michael Askill and oud by Hamed Sadeghi. It was lovely to hear the notes of the oud, a traditional instrument, blending in gently with the text, coupled with the heavy timpani, often serving as the drums of war. The crashing symbols make one think of Zeus’ weapon of war, the lightning bolt.

When we left the theatre we walked out into the most intense thunderstorm I can recall in recent years: it was magical and eerie to have spent nine hours listening to an examination of the power of Zeus, and then to see his chief power manifested. The Iliad Out Loud was everything I’d hoped it would be: wonderful to experience the tale in the way Homer intended. 

4 ½ stars: ★★★★☆

The Iliad Out Loud
William Zappa and Sport for Jove at Sydney Festival
Belvoir St Theatre 
23-27 January

Oliver Wakelin

Saturday 2 February, 2019

About the author

Oliver Wakelin is a WAAPA acting graduate and a PhD candidate.