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'Achilles is our first existentialist hero'

As her Stork Theatre Company prepares the first Australian production of The Iliad, Helen Madden describes how Melbourne audiences are leading the way in a growing appreciation of the works of Homer

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24 November 2016

You may have not noticed it, but at the moment, there is enormous international interest in Homer in the western world. The epics have never been out of print, but lately books on The Iliad and The Odyssey have made it to The New York Times best-seller list and the BBC did a 15-hour livestream broadcast of the entire epic, starting at the British Museum and then spreading to the streets of London, as actors and celebrities read parts in different venues. Helen Madden noticed it and is pointing it out to us. "This is just an indication of how people are going back to Homer, because they are looking for meaning, and The Iliad and The Odyssey are the foundation stones of western civilisation," she says.

The creator and artistic director of Melbourne's Stork Theatre, she is devoted to the cause of bringing classical works of art to the public, in a marvellous open-air setting. It would be impossible for her to miss the opportunity to hop on the Homer train, especially since she's never been off it.

"The Stork Theatre, in its 30-year history, has had a Homer production anchoring each season," she points out. "Last year, we did page to stage every Sunday, having an expert academic interpret The Iliad and The Odyssey, with the assistance of an actor performing sections of it. That was enormously popular."

So now, the next step is to put The Iliad itself on stage, "which has never been before". From 7 to 19 February, the Stork Theatre will present The Rage of Achilles at La Mamma Carlton Court House.

"This will be an enormous feat, it will be challenging," Madden says, describing how Humphrey Bower adapted the epic (translated by acclaimed classicist Robert Fagles) for the stage, as a one-person show.

"He's an outstanding actor and he will take the role of the narrator, Homer, as well as several characters: Achilles, Patroclus, Hector, Helen and Andromache. This is not a reading, it is an actual performance, a play that will give people an understanding of the poetry of Homer − what it sounds like, as well as its meaning. Because we all have this sense that we know these epics, but we don't really. None of us reads The Iliad any more, it sits on library shelves."

For her, it is important to go back and revisit these epics. "I think we understand that The Iliad is not just a war story. It's the story of Achilles, who really wanted to question the heroic ethos and wanted to just leave the war and go home to his family and his father and in the end he couldn't. The heroic ethos just held him too fast. But he tried and he's our first existentialist hero; he questioned his role in the world and the meaning of his life and the meaning of war," she explains.

"In the same way, in The Odyssey, after 10 years of warfare, Odysseus is sailing home and is learning how to live again and what it means to be alive. Odysseus is offered immortality by Calypso if he stays with her and he says no, he chooses life and to be human because that is how he can be true to himself. These are two epics written in the eighth century BC, which, for the first time, had expressed the futility of war and the sheer adventure of being alive."

Humphrey Bower will be turning Homer's The Iliad into a one-man theatre performance.

How does this daunting task even start to come to life? "We focused on Achilles", Madden explains. "It's his story that ties in all the themes of The Iliad. The Iliad begins with Achilles and his rage against Agamemnon and in the end, in one of the last, wonderful scenes, is where Achilles meets with his enemy, the Trojan king Priam. As enemies, they understand and empathise with each other, which happens for the first time in literature and that empathy, what they say to each other, has in fact been interpreted as the beginning of humanism and western civilisation."

It is at this point that she states her favourite passage: "What Achilles says in response to Agamemnon's offer of limitless wealth if only he would return to the battlefield because the Greeks are losing." In it, Achilles articulates a hugely radical reappraisal of the heroic warrior ethos and the meaning of human life:

"I say no wealth is worth my life.
Not all the treasure they tell was won for Troy in the old days
… a man's breath cannot come back again −
it cannot be lifted or won by force
once it has crossed the teeth's barrier."

Helen Madden makes a strong case for the staging of The Iliad, and her belief is fuelled by the rewards of running the Stork Theatre, often getting back to the sources of literature, Greece. "We're all Greeks, basically," she says. "We all consider Ithaca our home, really. We all relate to that in essence. That's the most energising and stimulating aspect of being involved in Greek culture."

The biggest reward of her 30-year experience has been just this − "taking great works of literature and turning them into riveting theatrical experience, giving people the chance to understand them in a different way, or come to them for the first time".

"Nowadays, in Melbourne, we feel as though we're in the vanguard of this western resurgence of interest in Homer. Melbourne audiences are leading the way, and it is all about connecting with the wellsprings of our culture."

That's why she insists on the outdoor theatre experience. "Homer and his forebears would have been telling these stories around a campfire, at night under the stars. Ideally, for that same reason we'd like to do it in an outdoor theatre, because that is open, welcoming and non- exclusive. We try to be as non-exclusive as possible, that's how we attract people. This is not meant to be high art, it's popular art. These stories are meant for everybody."

To book tickets for The Rage of Achilles: Homer's Iliad, visit www.storktheatre.com.au, or call (03) 94100295

 

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