BLOG Sophie BaggottNWR Issue 109
Early on Saturday morning, 26 September, I journeyed to Llanelli in blazing sunshine for National Theatre Wales' highly-anticipated 'Iliad'. Many hours later I returned to Cardiff, not just deflated but acutely disappointed. For years, the experimental side of Welsh theatre has held my father and me as keenly loyal audience members. The stunningly immersive production, 'Coriolan/us' (2012), set in a disused aircraft hangar, had been topped by 'Mametz' (2014), which plunged us into an all-consuming re-enactment of WWII poetry across the woodland of Usk Valley. By contrast, 'Iliad' played it banally safe, and lost.
Boxed into the town’s theatre, the eight-hour show wasted Llanelli’s blue skies and instead took place against a pixelated projection of the outdoors. Directors Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes split the performance into quarters, each lasting roughly two hours and separated by an equally lengthy interval. Rather than directly reworking the ancient Greek tale of the Trojan War, the production followed Christopher Logue’s 'War Music', an epic poem based on translations of Homer’s Iliad.
The superb cast, including Melanie Walters of Gavin and Stacey fame, had scarce opportunity to display individuals’ expertise. The actors gripped microphones to recite lines using autocues pinned up in every direction or by way of iPads stored in their pockets. Not only did this dampen the delivery itself, but also felt like oddly half-hearted engagement with such a passionate poem. A radio broadcast of the words would have had as much, if not more, impact.
The beauty of Logue’s verse was further obscured by endlessly disruptive reconstructions of the set. The stage was simple: a few platforms surrounded by tyres, white plastic chairs, and wooden planks. Several stagehands spent the hours building and unbuilding these items into random structures around the actors. This often involved shoving audience members off their seats to throw chairs into a pile or turn them on their sides. This ritual even applied to frailer spectators – more than once I was distracted by the sight of an elderly man with a walking stick being made to limp from one location to another. Nor was it uncommon for these rearrangements to interfere noisily, such as the continual tearing of sellotape to tie planks together. Surely this cycle of creation and destruction was theoretically deep, but in reality it just stole from the poetry’s potential power.
Audience interaction picked up slightly in the third segment; I was one of the lucky people invited to lie on the floor and play dead. This excitement was the high point of my day, though my enthusiasm had been long quashed by this stage. The raving tweets afterwards baffled me, and the reviews claiming it was 'the theatrical event of the decade' all the more so. 'Iliad' doesn't remotely approach the brilliance of NTW's previous projects. Its tame setting was an early blow (particularly in light of the misleadingly sandy images dominating publicity), and the presentation of Logue’s epic poetry lacked Pearson and Brookes' usual innovativeness. Here’s to hoping that a high quality, not quantity, of drama will return to the limelight in NTW's programme for 2016.
is a student on Cardiff University's Journalism MA.
'Iliad' runs at Y Ffwrnes, Llanelli, until 3 October
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