A collaboration of epic proportions. So the program describes the process of creating this beautiful, powerful recreation of the central love story of Homer’s Iliad; a process of blending and interweaving the innovative creative powers of two amazing theatre companies. It is not an exaggeration.
Dead Puppet Society and Legs on the Wall both inhabit the space of theatre with their own specialised skills. Both involve choreographed movement, Legs tending towards physical theatre and acrobatics, Puppet towards physical representations of dreamlike or magical images. And both companies are based in the ancient practice of story-telling. Their collaboration produced one of the most inventive shows I have ever seen.
Central love story? I hear you ask. Surely that is the love between Helen and Paris, the love that precipitated the whole saga of the Trojan War? A love that, in David Morton’s reading of the epic, saves Helen from an abusive marriage to Menelaus. But no. Homosexual love being prized in Greek society above heterosexual love (we have only to read Plato’s Symposium to see that), Homer dwells much more on the love between the two young men, Patroclus and Achilles. In Morton’s play, Patroclus’ love softens and gentles the brutish, loutish Greek Achilles, and transforms him into, well, almost a hero.
I loved Morton’s take on the Trojan war. History always being written by the victors, our Western tradition has presented the Greeks as the (European) heroes, and the Trojans the effete, weak, decadent Asians characterised perjoratively as female, as described by Edward Said in Orientalism. After all, Western civilisation itself traces its origin to classical Greek culture. I have for a long time thought of the Greek side as a bunch of thugs, and the Trojans as infinitely more civilised, so I relished seeing Agamemnon, played by a woman (Lauren Jackson), portrayed as a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Vladimir Putin.
This play was conceived years before Putin invaded Ukraine. However, when Odysseus says to Achilles “there will be more wars” I could not help thinking of this new horror in our midst, just across the Black Sea from where the Trojan war took place. And there is an even more compelling recent parallel to the Trojan war: the second Iraq war, where Iraq was invaded by a coalition of the “willing” (ie those countries like Australia who were bullied by the Americans into joining them) who had vowed, like Agamemnon’s Greeks, to fight together; an invasion justified, like Agamemnon’s, by a lie. One of the beautiful things about this play, however, was that the few really rounded characters in the drama, particularly Briseis (Christy Tran) and Patroclus (Karl Richmond) realised that in war there are villains and heroes on both sides, and that in war it is not enemies and friends that get killed, but people.
The stagecraft of this show was mesmerising. The dream-like fluidity of adolescence, shown in the growing love between Achilles and Patroclus in Act I, was conveyed by the puppet of the bear and its cub, irresistibly gorgeous; and the single combat scenes in Act II was rendered more terrifying, and also more magical, by the stylised choreography of the aerial work around a huge spear, where the work of Ellen Bailey as Hector was especially compelling. There is a scene in Act I where Patroclus and Achilles (Stephen Madson) gradually realise their love for each other as they are training in the forest under the tutelage of the centaur Chiron, played comically camp by Nic Prior. Richmond and Madson practically lured us into their bodies as they transitioned imperceptibly from awkwardness to complicity during their acrobatic spear-play.
An interesting component of the production was the interpolations sung by the ghost of Thetis, Achilles’ dead mother. These put me in mind of the role of the chorus in ancient Greek drama (not, of course, quite as ancient as Homer); but was she commenting on the action? Or was she meditating on it, like the arias in Bach’s passions? Unfortunately the singer, Montaigne, was over-miked to the extent that her sound drowned most of her words, so that I only caught words like “together” in the particularly cheesy song during Patroclus’ and Achilles’ love scene. This had the unfortunate result that it turned her songs into episodes more like those in which characters in musicals sing, which I found deepy at variance with the epic sweep of the play.
And I have to say that I found Tony Bucher’s score for the show worse than uninteresting. His musical idiom, with its four-square metres, predictable rhythms, and melodies verging on the banal, reflected none of the immense subtlety of what was going on on stage. This incredibly multi-layered play deserved a far more sophisticated score, and I found myself thinking that while stagecraft has developed out of sight since Wagner wrote his operas, music has gone the other way. Though not entirely – I would love to see what our best theatre composers, such as Alan John, would have made of this show.
Despite the music, however, this is a fabulous show, in which the integration of all its disparate modalities produces haunting, unforgettable images. Where David Morton and his collaborators do service to Homer is in pointing up the sharp distinctions of character between all the participants in this futile, destructive war. Where they do service to us in the 21st century is in making these sharp distinctions a vehicle for the acceptance of difference, which is so vital to the future of civilisation.
Dead Puppet Society and Legs on the Wall
by David Morton
Director David Morton
Venue: The Playhouse, QPAC
Dates: 29 Aug – 10 Sep 2022
Tickets: $49 - $59
Part of the 2022 Brisbane Festival