Looking at the state of the world today, it’s no wonder that the founding text of western culture begins with the word ‘rage’.
Humphrey Bower certainly did take notice. An acclaimed actor and narrator, he is currently starring in Stork Theatre’s ‘Homer Festival’, built around his one-person performance, a theatrical adaptation of The Iliad titled The Rage of Achilles. It doesn’t take a classics scholar to understand how that kind of rage becomes very meaningful in today’s context.
“I felt that the core story of The Iliad, the story of Achilles’ rage, was very relevant today,” Bower agrees. “It is the foundation story of our culture and it is a story about these basic emotions, about what rage makes people do and how it can lead to tragedy. That would speak to everyone, anywhere in the world, but especially now, given what is happening in the world − with the war and sieges in places like Aleppo in Syria. There is a lot of rage and anger driving world events, domestic events and personal events, so I didn’t think that I needed to update the story or point out to these connections.
“Rage is being fostered and encouraged and even exploited, by politicians particularly. Times of historical and social change also produce feelings of powerlessness and rage, and I think we’re living through those times,” he says, pointing to a historical similarity with Homer’s time.
“We don’t know a lot about when The Iliad was composed, but the theory is that it was in the ‘Greek dark ages’, after the end of the Mycenaean civilisation and before the birth of the classical civilisation. The current theory is that, if Homer was a real person, he existed around the eighth century BC, but the story of Troy goes back even further.
“My sense is that it was also a time of upheaval, a time of war, a time of people moving around, of refugees, of encounters between different cultures, and there’s some similarity to the world now.”
This kind of insight is what made the actor perfect for the enormous task that was entrusted to him by Helen Madden, the woman and creative force behind Stork Theatre.
“She contacted me late last year and said she would like me to adapt and perform The Iliad at La Mamma Carlton Courthouse. which she had booked,” remembers the actor.
“I had worked with her before, because the Stork Theatre Company used to do readings of The Iliad and The Odyssey at the Stork Hotel when they ran it; I’d been involved in one of those and she knew I’d done a few one-person shows and literary adaptations of my own. So she thought I’d be the right person for the job. Then she told me that Denis Moore was directing and Shaun Gurton was designing and I knew both of them, so I felt the project was in safe hands.”
A ONE-PERSON CAST OF CHARACTERS
To say the task at hand was Herculean would be an understatement, but Humphrey Bower approached it with meticulous method.
“The first thing I did was read the whole thing again, which I hadn’t done in a long time,” he laughs, describing how he navigated through the extremely long poem to distil a play that lasts no more than 80 minutes.
“Once I decided on the story I wanted to tell for about an hour and twenty minutes and hold the audience, that meant that a lot of The Iliad and a lot of the characters, a lot of adventures and episodes, were not essential. So that guided me. The first draft I produced was about 90 pages long, the second was 70 pages, the third one 40 and the one I’m working on now is 30 pages long.
“Part of the process was taking out episodes, but sometimes it was just simplifying the language. Not changing it, of course. Having said that, all the words in my adaptation comes from Robert Fagles’ very beautiful and powerful translation, which Helen had the rights to, so I worked entirely from that, since I don’t speak Greek, nor do I read classical Greek. I hope I’ve kept something of the spirit and the style of Homer, but some of his long descriptions and epithets, while they work beautifully when you read them, are not necessary in a performance.”
The play finished, he now had other challenges to face. The biggest one was “remembering the words”, he says, with a burst of laughter. “Physically and vocally, it is a challenge,” he explains. “I’m not just standing there, narrating; I’m representing battles, that war, that violence and its impact on the human body, which is a big part of the story. There’s a lot of movement without words and I don’t have CGI or a cast of thousands,” he adds, again laughing.
Still, Homer’s cast is ever- present in this play. “Achilles, Patroclus, Hector, Agamemnon, Helen and some of the gods, particularly Athena and Zeus and Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis, and Hector’s wife, Andromache, and his parents, Hecuba and Priam” − he recounts the different characters that he moves through, all those people that he becomes onstage, going through the cycle of emotions that is the story.
“In a way it’s a family story, or it’s a story about two families − gods and people,” he says, pointing out the cathartic closure that comes when Priam comes to Achilles, asking for the body of his son.
“There is a kind of reconciliation there, when the two men recognise something about their common humanity and their suffering. This is a story in itself,” he says.
HOW HOMER TEACHES US PSYCHOLOGY
This is why Homer is relevant today in a way that exceeds similarities about war and atrocities. Homer can teach us a lot about ourselves and our own psychology, argues Bower.
“There is an enormous understanding and compassion in The Iliad, a very realistic view of human nature. Homer sees human beings as they are; that means they are flawed, they are driven by emotions and feelings. In Homer’s time or in the time of The Iliad, or in The Iliad itself, a lot of those feelings are attributed to the gods, who sometimes fill people with feelings and sometimes they hold people back. In the 21st century, those gods are inside us; sometimes we lose control and sometimes we have to exert control over ourselves. So Homer’s wisdom comes from a much earlier culture but it is a part of our own history as well.”
The actor certainly feels that he himself is connected to this continuum, this thread of wisdom that dates back to ancient times, by the mere act of being alone onstage.
“I’ve done three to four shows over the last five or six years where I’ve either been alone on stage, or just with a musician or a dancer,” he says.
“For me, the most exciting relationship in a solo performance is the relationship with the audience. They’re really my fellow performers; I’m looking at them, talking to them, feeding off them, I’m telling them a story and sometimes they are the character I’m speaking to, they become different people. That’s the most exciting thing about it, that’s how I approach solo performance. It brings theatre back to something very basic; the voice and body of the actor and the presence of a group of people in the room with you in a very essential way,” he explains.
“Obviously, I love being in plays with other actors as well, but for me, being alone on stage and telling a story is joining the tradition that I think Homer was part of. As far as we know, The Iliad was performed by bards, by someone alone, possibly playing a lyre or another instrument. We think The Iliad was first experienced as a solo performance, so it’s exciting to put the story back into that tradition.”
* Stork Theatre’s production of The Rage of Achilles is at La Mamma Courthouse in Carlton until 19 February. Tickets are available at www.trybooking.com/Booking/BookingEventSummary.aspx?eid=239155