The 16 hour reading of the Iliad felt more like a feat of endurance for its enthusiastic Robert Fagles translation-clutching audience, than it did for its 60 odd cast gathered together in the formal settings of the British Museum and later, the softer, gentler surroundings of the Almeida, under the introspective guiding eyes of director Rupert Goold.
One thing the globally broadcast live event illuminated, was the variegated perceptions of time and therefore its intensity, both in battle and in performance both for actor and for audience. For the actors, who read for anything between 10 to 30 minutes and over, their charge as we hurtled through the 24 books, was to capture the ‘rage’ of Homer’s battle fraught characters, the loose five beat rhythm of Fagles’ prose with its sensitivity to Homer’s line-ending alliteration and repetitive sounds, and convey all of this with enough passion to “roil” in the text like pop-up performance poets. As I watched and heard in the austere surroundings of the British Museum’s Great Court, I wondered how individual actors, as well as the audience, were experiencing and therefore perceiving time.
Some actors had larger chunks to read than others, some may have felt part of the battle charge themselves, a member of the beleaguered Achaean’s battalions perhaps, rising in a mass against time and the audience in the attempt to get this done. Others might have felt heroically alone: Rory Kinnear in Book 7, at hour 5, seemed like a tormented lone warrior, throwing his fists at the sky with the sense of man who knows he cannot trick fate as he described Hector and Paris fighting the Argives “like winds sent down to sailors desperate for it”. His was a lonely path as he shouted, writhed and tormented. By comparison, drawing close to the Iliad’s end, Lesley Manville in Book 24, describing Priam’s grief and Hecuba’s rage against murderous Achilles who refused to return the body of their dead son Hector (“eat him raw” says Hecuba) seemed softer and more at peace in her approach.
Perhaps for Rory Kinnear, who embodied Hector, Paris, mighty Zeus and ardent Athena, time was compressed even as his section was long and drawn out. It was as if, to paraphrase a recurring Homeric image, like a “spear’s long shadow”. For Lesley Manville, in the Almeida’s performance-focused space, in low light and to the backdrop of what could be the cliffs and turrets of Troy and to Andrew Joseph’s sonorous drones, a sense of collaboration with place and text rendered a wholly different experience for her and the audience. For her, time might have gently elongated out, as for the audience, it might have seemed she and they were experiencing a sense of plurality, or perhaps both she and they were unable to say how time had passed at all.
Why have I chosen to talk about time as my way in to writing about the almost hallucinatory experience of watching this reading for 16 hours non-stop both live and online? As introduced by Professor Simon Goldhill, much of the Iliad is about a “commitment to a good life”; debates about what is worth dying for and the “price of immortal fame” – questions which still seem terribly pertinent to our present era. At the core of these ‘worthy’ ideals, or perhaps behind them as the motivating drive, is “rage’’ as Simon Russell Beale thundered out in Fagles’ opening translation. There is a lot of rage in the Iliad, there is a lot of rage in today’s society: in the Iliad, much of it is caused by Achaean beauty Helen’s adultery but neither the Gods nor the Trojans or the Argives question their fate (although they try to outwit it) neither do they judge. The same too in modern warfare, from Homer to Vassily Grossman the generals quote “you must stop the enemy” at “whatever the cost” (Life and Fate). Whether on the battlegrounds of Stalingrad or Troy, Syria or Iraq, rage and fear and the same sense of powerlessness permeate all interpretations and experiences of war and the traumas that often accompany it, and so does time.
And it’s the drama of the war, the theatrical language that is used here – in Book 3 the “black long ships” of the Achaeans, like hearses themselves or, in Book 1, the Argives promising to “gut Troy to nothing” as if it were a fish – which has a psychological impact on how the watched and the watching, the enemy and the ally and the audience and the actor, perceive time and experience.
Both time and experience, at the British Museum and then for me (due to unforeseen circumstances) online and watching the continuation at the Almeida, was divisional, fragmentary and conflicting, and at the same time, whole, concrete and harmonious. How can this be? I thought as I watched the actors, as I watched Rupert Goold as he playfully began the reading with a single strike on a cymbal, and as I watched the massed sea of eager and not-yet-tired eyes at the British Museum. How can this be that this experience of watching and listening can involve both plurality and singularity at one and the same time, where audience and actor are part of the same sea and yet experience each breaking wave, its foamy tip, as an individual experience, distant still from the swirling storms of the mass of waters beneath?
There is something beautiful and simple to be found in the correlations between Homer’s sonorous repetitions, the narrative repetitiveness of the Gods’ continual Divine Interventions, the endless battles and familiar pains and the single experiences of war which has a soldier’s clarity – Odysseus in Book 4 (Adam James) who experiences ‘the dark…swirling across his eyes’. Also the more objective descriptions of the Trojan advances:
‘battle lines of them roaring,
Shoulders rearing, exploding foam, waves in the vanguard’
giving an impression of a deceptively ineffective solidity (as waves are on sand) and the experiences of actor/performer and audience, both as wholes and as individuals.
Was this perhaps an intention by the Almeida, to lay bear the beautiful intricate webs of communication and time and experience, especially as they published online footage of actors preparing backstage like warriors, priming themselves to confront the text and the audience as if in hand to hand combat? At times, the audience, with its moods and ever changing flow, especially at the British Museum, seemed to dance with the performers, exchanging looks and smiles or groans, grimaces and sighs – and this over an amount of time which in itself was used to convey the time of another place, but where all the joys and terrors of human existence can be experienced.
A parallel was continued as audience members and press were transported via modern day chariots (rickshaws) to the Almeida for the Iliad’s conclusion and some lines were read from a bus (Marco Brondon) and twitter updates added yet another layer to how we experienced not just this theatrical event, but its treatment as if the war were something that was really happening.
Twitter updates seemed humorous and yet at times adolescent, their simplicity highlighting social media’s tendency to undermine serious events: many tweets read “Achilles is still NOT fighting” or “Are you TeamTrojan or TeamGreek?” or “Diomedes has wounded a God. This isn’t OK” and there were several ‘Wound Alerts’ and ‘Spear Cams’. If a person experienced the performance via twitter alone, without the cavernous context given by the live event, it would surely highlight Twitter’s 140 character ability to make a mockery of real life. In 2009, a Telegraph article reported that Twitter ‘makes us indifferent to human suffering’ negating the possibility of time to reflect and process human anguish and consider the actions of others and define them as moral or not. A singular experience of the Iliad merely through the Almeida’s twitter feed would also – must also – have sped up, although the feed itself took place over the allotted 16 hours.
How effective was watching the event online then, as opposed to seeing it live? The laptop replaces the TV which replaced (in my view) Ibsen’s sometimes metaphorical fireplace or stove around which the family gathered and from which stories grew. Was it a more positive experience than Twitter’s quick changing news feed? In some ways, the close up changes everything, but there is less certainty about whether this is good or bad. How much would I have enjoyed better or less Ben Whishaw’s preoccupiedness as he soaked himself in Fagles’ stacked prose? Or Jonjo O’Neill’s feverish intensity? Or Tobias Menzies becoming Hector becoming Achilles? Or Hattie Morahan’s alternative, subtler interpretation? Or Tim Pigott-Smith’s authorial command, if I had experienced it live at the Almeida? How close would my experience have felt and therefore, my experience of time? I might have felt close to the audience around me, I might have experienced a raising of the collective IQ as we watched, but does the experience of watching online give me a chance for individuality again and to the ‘own’ the experience as mine? I cannot help but return to thinking about Vassily Grossman and his descriptions of the experiences of war in Life and Fate. Sitting at home, with all its distractions, being and not being at the Almeida, was I not like a ‘staff officer’ bedded down deep behind front lines, experiencing the battle only through second hand accounts and maps that have to be studied, and therefore less nearer to the truth than a foot soldier might be?
Yet contrarily, the online experience had its positives. How fortunate I could still see and hear and feel some sort of communal togetherness. Undoubtedly, the Almeida’s welcoming digital team worked hard to give a sense of presence and contact. It also got me thinking about how social media can traverse physical borders otherwise not passable. Could people actually be watching in Syria? Or Russia or Belarus, Africa and the US? This was an example of using the online experience to promote good, with a similar intent, though with different outcomes, to the Young Vic’s Taking Part team’s production of Now Is The Time To Say Nothing, where Skype and online media was used to uplift and support others trapped 1,000s of miles away in civil war.
The actors were reaching out beyond the Almeida, beyond London and to the world. As if the whole world was an amphitheatre.
As the presentation drew to its close, the lasting words weren’t, for the online audience anyway, Tim Pigott-Smith’s wonderfully intonated “and so they buried Hector, breaker of horses” but, printed on the screen, “time to rest, to enjoy the sweet relief of sleep.”
And sleep, as we all know, is yet another dreamy, hallucinatory landscape and time zone.