Features Essays Published 25 August 2015

Brand New Ancients: The Iliad at the Almeida

Rafaella Marcus didn't go to the British Museum, or the Almeida. The Iliad was the soundtrack to her Friday regardless.
Rafaella Marcus

In the introduction to Christopher Logue’s superb “account” of The Iliad, War Music, he quotes the classicist Xanthe Wakefield saying “The Greeks are not humanistic, not Christian, not sentimental. […] They are musical.” This, I think, explains part of the draw of Homer’s epic some four thousand years later: we instinctively recognise a world that is culturally familiar yet fundamentally Other. Despite how much closer violence has been brought to us by the media, by the internet, we actually live in a less violent world than there has ever been, less likely to die violently now than at any other point in human history. And yet our recognition of the part violence plays in our transactions and our structures of power remains, and perhaps thrills us a little. The Iliad is an account of violence told through song: it is both glorified and condemned, it is both a means to an end and an art in its own right. It is both blockbuster and arthouse.

Circumstances prevented me from making my way down to the British Museum to sit in person in front of each bard but actually, je ne regrette et cetera. I’m not sure sitting in lines as though in school assembly, conscious of my own lack of erudition amongst a crowd of Fagles-clutching onlookers, could have matched my dreamy morning in the kitchen with the online live stream. As I washed up, Achilles spat insults at Agamemnon. As I hacked through the day’s emails, Zeus thundered at the lesser gods. In performing my mundane to-do list alongside the millenia old words that ricocheted off the newly wiped down work tops, I caught a momentary sense of collective humanity: the rank and file, the thousands of Greek and Trojan alike that polished their armour, spitted and roasted their meat, felt guilty about not writing home enough – for whom war was not a tragedy but a chore.

Despite my enduring love for Homer, I never learned to read Ancient Greek – rather than a scholar or a classicist, the most honest term for me is a fan. I am a fan of Homer in the way I am also sometimes a fan of football and nearly always a fan of Marvel superhero films, which was why Friday 14th August 2015 will, for me, go down in history as “The Greatest Day on Twitter, Like, Ever”.  Fandoms have always grown up anywhere they pleased and usually at the forefront of new media: whether it was Kirk/Spock slash ‘zines of the 70s or the Geocities communities of the 90s or Tumblr today, fans have always sought out other fans, regardless of time zones and distance. The Almeida’s Iliad was a perfect Venn Diagram of the theatre community and the classics community, with fans like me in the middle: proud, silly, irreverent, just as likely to make a dumb joke about the poem’s undeniable homoeroticism as express grief over Hector’s death. Days later, I’m still getting favourites and retweets for my selection of Bronze Age based quips. My people, my soul croons, I have found you at last. #Iliad was what the internet is for.

Following #Iliad was like watching music, a school of fish bound together in collective motion: the tone shifted deftly and rapidly, always in response to the reader. The experience was at once ancient – hearing it read aloud as it would once have been, feeling the weight of those thousands of years – and modern – seeing the internet come to the collective decision that Achilles was a raging douchebag. At one point during the funeral games of Patroclus, Ajax slips and falls in a pile of excrement, and #Pootroclus started trending. I have never been more proud of Twitter, and more weirdly moved by it: that we are entertained by the same basic things those funny far away people found amusing. More moving still was the tender, outraged comments of those making through the final hour: “shaking at the final applause” said one, while multiple others simply read “tears”, and another just said “extraordinary”.

It is an extraordinary poem, The Iliad. It is extraordinary, the way that Homer, a Greek, chooses to end the poem realising the sense of communal grief shared by the Trojans as they bury Hector, their last, best hope. It is extraordinary to include a scene between Priam and Achilles, in which the King of Troy says, “I am going to do what no man has ever done; kiss the hands of the man who murdered my son”. It struck me, listening to that final hour, that The Iliad is a poem in which grief dissolves lines that anger has drawn: that Achilles’ endless takes-sixteen-hours-to-read long rage is finally quieted by being shown the mirror of his own loss, Priam grieving for Hector just as he grieves for Patroclus. (And let’s not forget that Achilles allows Priam safe passage back to Troy and actively hides his presence from Agamemnon, chief Greek king, so perhaps grief also dissolves lines of nationhood as well – but I digress.)

All too often social media feels like a distraction from an experience, a way of not being in the moment, recording an experience to have later. The magic of Friday was how much my day was enhanced by sharing round jokes, classical tidbits, checking in and out of this online community (and a word must be devoted to whoever was running the @IliadLive account on Twitter, not only for their unflagging commentary through all sixteen hours but for the way they absolutely nailed the tone of the event for those participating via the internet: informative, irreverent, but not reducing or making mock). It made me think about how we used to enjoy theatre vocally. I’m not advocating a return to actors shouting to be heard above cries of “oranges, oranges” exactly, but it strikes me that we could be ‘fans’ of theatre, in the same way that we are fans of football now: the joyous passion of not so much groupthink but groupfeel, reacting both reverently and irreverently, often in the space of the same 140 characters. Twitter is not an art form in itself, but at its best, it can serve conversations about art incredibly well. After the reading ended around 1am, the Iliad hashtag was filled with people tweeting their thanks; the word “special” was used again and again.

It has struck me before how much of a crossover there is between theatre work and general hardcore nerdery, whether for Homer’s Iliad or Homer Simpson: as Simon Pegg put it, being a geek means “being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection”. I would add that it often means caring passionately for very little returns, whether low pay or a favourite show going off the rails (Season 3 of Sherlock, am I right?). Friday’s #Iliad event placed caring centre stage: over sixty actors trouping out to explore and express a text to which their chosen profession owes much, and over a thousand responders, fans, audience members unashamedly cheering them on, online or in person. It was what football feels like, it was what the opening of a new Avengers film feels like, it was what sixty brilliant actors reading out the whole of the fucking Iliad feels like. Brilliant, brand new, and ancient all at once.

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