National Theatre Wales
Ffwrnes Theatre, Llanelli
A bright autumn day in Llanelli grew even brighter as National Theatre Wales’ marathon production of the Iliad opened to an enthusiastic audience. But there was something else going on that day. At 10.00 am the town was already buzzing with match-day fever as the first pints were evident and on Stryd Stepney, Max and Cerys belted out the old tunes. How would art fare in competition with rugby in this hotbed of the game? Rather well as it turned out.
In four parts this ancient tale was always likely to be epic, but it was never boring. Directors Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes have previous, (Coriolan/us, The Persians), and this multi-media staging of Christopher Logue’s War Music, itself derived from Homer’s account of the end of the Trojan War, is up there with those lauded productions.
A team of six narrators carry the three hundred pages of poetry with aplomb; all were convincing. Daniel Hawksford made a strong early showing and Richard Lynch grew into his roles; but Melanie Walters stands out for her diction and accents and her acting through gesture and her facial projection.
As you would expect now from National Theatre Wales, the sound is compelling, always haunting it was at times almost wistful, but the potential for bellicosity and pent-up violence is always present. The projections range from largely static landscapes (in Wales?) which, whilst charming, seem to be a long way from the Eastern Mediterranean and video headshots of local teenagers playing Gods.
The use of teleprompters restricted dramatic potential to the use of the upper body and engendered a sense of “talking heads” which diverted the attention of the audience away from the action and on to the screen; it seemed a bit like talking with friends in a pub with the TV on and finding that the usual dynamic cannot be established. Such an approach demands good tone and timbre in the voice and clear diction and enunciation which was provided on a consistent basis, but the strongest effects came when the cast performed in chorus, as in the death of the bull sequence which was deeply moving.
The language conveyed the message. The elision of the ancient (7th century B.C.) and the modern and of the catastrophic and continuing threat of war, conflict and displacement, was conveyed admirably and the references to “helicopters”, ”privatise”, ”Australia” and “curly-girlie hair” could have disorientated, but did not.
NTW is good at sets and settings. The opened floor of the Ffwrnes theatre was a blank page and the weight of the production therefore fell on the set. Think Kwikfit tyre bay meets a clearance sale at the garden centre. Building the set as you go along invites the audience to care and to share in the process and whilst some of the effects, like the raising of giant blooms on tripods were certainly dramatic, in the manner of raising the US flag on Iwo Jima, they also seemed to be rather pointless and distracting.
Audience engagement also involved being ushered around the space to make way for yet another “construction”, the audience becoming the set and, more welcomingly for the chosen few, being invited to lie down and play dead.
The marathon Saturday show of four two hour segments was sold out and as part four started the England v Wales rugby game kicked off. But the “literati”, as I heard us being described by a passing rugby fan were loyal to the cause. Iliad was a marathon and it was epic. The concluding sound-scene with hunting horn and battle drums lingered long after the play had finished. This was not just drama. It was arresting and compelling, a ”must-experience” experience.