The one-word title, Achilles, gives an indication of the truncated nature of Company of Wolves’ latest piece. In place of Homer’s epic poem, The Illiad, Ewan Downie’s solo performance of spoken word, movement and song distils the Grecian hero’s tale into a potent forty-five minute meditation, a microscopic probing, of one of the demi-god’s most human moments: Achilles’ despair after the his own stubbornness results in the death of his best friend and probable lover, Patroclus.
Where much movement-based performance can come across as florid and indulgent, Achilles goes straight for the heart– just like the thrust of Hector’s spear that fells Patroclus and begins the tale.
Performing alone, Downie’s storytelling skills come to the fore. He imbues the spoken parts with stormy emotion, stumbling only a few times over the piece’s elegant yet labyrinthine script. The inclusion of the heart-shuddering Grecian lamentation songs– sung in Downie’s stark Scottish tenor– is a bold, unconstrained outpouring of pain and loss that drags the audience right into the heart of Achilles’ agony. Unsurprisingly however, the movement work is where Downie’s performance is most effective.
An intelligent juxtaposition of violent contortion and bleak stillness, the choreography paints a stark portrait of the terrifying unpredictability of grief; one of the few feelings Google has failed to emoji-fy. In one particularly memorable sequence, Achilles’ frenzied revenge on the Trojan soldiers segues with his tender remembrances of all the hidden, softest parts of Patroclus’ body– an intermarrying of violence and sexual vulnerability that unsettles more than all the numbed descriptions of bitter battle violence that come later. Performed in the round in the Citizens’ intimate Circle Studio, the combination of Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s smooth-lined, minimalist set and Alberto Santos-Bellido’s deeply expressive lighting ensures the focus of this Classical epic remains entirely, heart-wrenchingly personal.
Achilles is multi-faceted but not over-done, with a tightly-reigned narrative that lands all the right emotional punches. It’s a compliment that Downie knows when his story is finished, avoiding overwrought analysis or clean endings. Instead, the audience is simply left with Achilles’ ambiguous and festering pain.
Achilles’ story isn’t new; but in the current world, where our ideals of civilised discussion and reasonable debate suddenly feel embarrassingly quaint, Company of Wolves’ micro-exploration of grief and pain seems achingly timely. Speaking up and shouting out still feels new. In the days since seeing Achilles, however, I can’t help thinking of the therapy of admitting our pain, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, supporting each other through suffering, even when it’s ugly. Like the best movement theatre, words become superfluous in the end; it’s the actions that matter, the beyond-words, that reach into the deeper places in our hearts we try to avoid. With Achilles, Company of Wolves advocate non-avoidance. Burning your enemies on a pyre is probably taking it too far. But admitting, engaging and running headlong towards the fight? Perhaps we all need to learn to avenge our friends with more bravery.
Achilles was on at Citizens Theatre Glasgow from 23rd to 27th January, 2018. It’s also on at Manipulate Festival, Edinburgh, on 30th January – book tickets here.