How William Zappa won the battle to adapt Homer’s Iliad

Anglo Greek Australian actor and playwright William Zappa tells us about the monumental task of adapting Homer's epic for the 2019 Sydney Festival

After Achilles has killed Trojan Prince Hector, his father Priam, the King of Troy begs Achilles to give him the body back.

“The sons I had who were the best of men in Troy are now all gone. War hungry Aries took their lives, except for one. The only one left to save us all and it was you, who came and took away his life, my Hector’s life. And it’s for him that I have come to offer up a bountiful ransom in exchange. Respect the gods Achilles I beg you. Pity me. Think of your father if he had to do what I have done, what no man in the world should have to endure, that is to kiss the hands of the man who killed his most loved son.”
Neos Kosmos is in the mesmerising company of Anglo Greek Australian actor and playwright William Zappa as he recites a passage from Homer’s The Iliad.

Zappa will be performing the epic story of the Trojan War at the 2019 Sydney Festival where audiences can see it over three parts over three nights, or they can binge watch the performance in one full day.

The 70-year-old has adapted Homer’s ancient text himself and with three other actors, along with fellow Greek Australian Socratis Otto, will perform the work at the Belvoir Street Theatre with live percussion by Michael Askill and an oud score.
Since 1981 the talented theatre performer has forged a career as one of Australia’s best stage actors having played major roles for the Sydney and Melbourne Theatre Companies and Bell Shakespeare.

However Zappa revealed that adapting and performing Homer’s epic in January will be one of the highest points of his career.

“I’m thrilled to be part of the Sydney Festival,” he told Neos Kosmos.

“But I’m also very nervous. I’ve written plays but this is turning up the ante quite a bit. As a creative person this is pretty much the peak. In performance it needs me to use lots of craft as an actor, but in writing the piece it’s a whole other side of my creative skills, my sense of rhythm, my ability to create images.”

Cast members Heather Mitchell, William Zappa, and Socratis Otto. Photo: Hugh Hamilton

After seeing The Iliad performed six years ago, Zappa fell in love with the story and immediately bought a copy of Robert Fagles’ translation. Initially he was going to adapt the epic work into a radio play, but soon after the funding was approved by ABC radio drama, the show was cancelled.

Despite the setback, the veteran performer completed the revision, but reveals that the task of adapting a text written in Ancient Greek thousands of years ago did prove to be painstaking.

“One of the things that made The Iliad so difficult to read aloud in all of the translations was that it was hard to know who is speaking when,” he says.

“All the translators without exception say it’s also impossible to do it justice in English using Homer’s rhythm because it’s not the rhythm of the English language, which is Iambic and is what Shakespeare uses. But by using Homer’s dactylic hexameter it means that when it’s read in that way, it’s slightly less predictable and that means the audience won’t fall asleep.”

Zappa believes his acting experience was also a major asset in adapting The Iliad especially for the purposes of performing the work in front of an audience on stage.

“I’ve written plays but I’m also an actor so I know about the spoken word,” he says.

“That’s helped me get into this. Because it’s storytelling and acting is storytelling. It’s an amazing story. It’s horrific on many levels, like the descriptions of the battle scenes. But it is counterpointed with some of the most beautiful and tender things I have ever read.”

One of Zappa’s favourite scenes is when Hector sees his wife Princess Andromache with their baby son Astyanax. Hearing the iconic performer recite the passage it’s no surprise that The Iliad has had him enthralled for the past six years.

“Achilles killed my father, my seven brothers. My whole family has been killed. My mother was captured and then she was ransomed off and she died of a broken heart, Artemis the Archer killed her. Now you are my brothers, you are my husband, you are my mother.”

Zappa struggles to finish the last line as his eyes well up and tears start to roll down his face.

“It’s so beautiful. You see how emotional I get? Hector then says, ‘I have to go. Think of the shame if I don’t go.'”

Zappa adds, “So it’s this extraordinary thing of men’s pride. In a way, I sometimes think wouldn’t it be good if we actually allowed ourselves to be ashamed? To acknowledge it. This story is 3,000 years old. It’s based on events that happened 2,000 years before and we are still mad men fighting the same stupid fucking wars. We have learnt nothing.”

Born in England to a Greek mother and an English father, Zappa moved to Australia when he was 28 and says that adapting and performing The Iliad has allowed him to get in touch with his ethnic heritage.

“I’m extremely proud of my Greek side and I know most of the time it’s my Anglo side that is expressed because they’re my formative years. But I’m absolutely ashamed of the fact that I don’t speak anywhere near as much Greek as I’d like to.
“Regarding Homer’s work, down the track I’d like to do things like going to Herodes Atticus at the foot of the Acropolis or at the Peloponnese. But my big, big ambition is that my adaptation becomes standard text in school so kids can read it.”

The Iliad – Out Loud is being staged at Belvoir St Theatre from 23-27 January. For tickets visit:https://www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/the-iliad-out-loud