Twelve hours. Of a 3,000-year old Ancient Greek poem. In Wales. The Iliad is possibly a show that will appeal to a niche audience, but when you learn that National Theatre Wales is behind the production, it’s a rather more attractive proposition. Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes return to NTW after their productions of The Persians and Coriolanus, and are currently in rehearsals for their marathon adaptation of Homer’s The Iliad, based on Christopher Logue’s poem, War Music.
The production can be seen in its four parts across four evenings, or as a marathon in one whole day or one whole night. “When we started reading Logue’s text, there didn’t seem any other way of approaching it than just doing the whole thing!” explains Mike Brookes. The two Mikes take a break from rehearsals to talk to me, and are both pretty sanguine about their decision to stage such a long work. “This is our third work for NTW,” Pearson tells me. “We’ve been working together as Pearson-Brookes for 17-18 years, and one thing that we’ve never done together is something of duration. From professional interest, we wanted to see what it would be like to make a durational work. The other aspect is that I’ve been aware of the Logue [translation/adaptation] for a long time, and of the dramatic possibility within it. This is just putting those two notions together. The work we do with NTW, the previous works, have been thinking about how we might locate classic texts in Wales, and I think that it was a way of building on what we’d done with The Persians and Coriolanus.”
Hearing them talk about it, it doesn’t seem like such a mad idea. Logue’s text takes a piece from the oral tradition and puts it on the page, and Pearson and Brookes then lift it back into a performance tradition. “As soon as you start engaging with the text,” says Brookes, “you get the sense that it’s written to be spoken and heard. It’s not just a thing on the page.” Pearson agrees: “Logue describes his practice as ‘reaching an account’ of The Iliad. By rendering it within the poetic, he’s very often précising. What’s at length in Homer might be very concise and chopped in Logue. To deal with that poetic account, I suspect, is somewhat more difficult than dealing with Homer and the long-form narrative.”
Brookes and Pearson are interested in putting classic texts in a Welsh context, they tell me. When so much of The Iliad is about familial history, notions of honour and other systems we don’t adhere to any more, and rather a lot of blood and guts, the text perhaps needs contextualising for a modern audience as well as a Welsh one. Brookes says: “There’s some very basic and human turning points at the heart of the narrative. The whole story hinges around the consequences of certain decisions made by individuals. Those things are very understandable; one thing leads to another.”
There’s a reason we’re still telling these stories, of course, and it would be reductive to think that there’s nothing in them for modern audiences. For those of us who had to slog through The Iliad as undergrads, it’s exciting to know that the stories are still being shared and brought to life. As with Shakespeare, there are connotations of “difficulty”. I wonder if Pearson and Brookes have considered this, especially when they’re asking some audience members to commit 12 hours to it: “It is a huge thing, but it’s also interesting to think about it as being a very small period of time within the epic event – it hinges on a couple of decision by a couple of individuals, and you’re watching how that plays out. It’s all very human,” explains Brookes.
“It’s effectively a fortnight in a ten-year war,” agrees Pearson. “The rage of Achilles – this event is very clear in Logue’s text, and I hope it’s clear in what we’re building over eight hours in the theatre. The thing about Homer is that characters reveal themselves through their actions and events, rather than psychological characterisation: they do something, and then there are repercussions. Within the style of theatre that we make, those kind of notions are easier for us to deal with and make into effective theatre, than perhaps motive and depth of characterisation.”
“The marathon was always our ambition,” Pearson continues. “The amount of pre-preparation has been much more substantial than any project I’ve ever been involved in. We started working with the young gods in March; we recorded them in May; we’ve been working on the soundtrack for months. The gods are all played by local teenagers and they’re only present on video – they’re in another place. In Logue’s text, they’re far more colloquial and human than the actual humans! Our task has been to build the framework within which certain groups of colleagues are able to work and make the fullest contribution that they can.”
For Brookes, “The organisational challenge isn’t so much the performance of it, but the fact that we’re effectively making four pieces of work within the time we might normally make one. So it has needed a huge amount of planning.” Both Mikes use cinematic references when talking about making work, referring to everything from jump-cuts to the tradition of Japanese benshi, who used to narrate silent films. This notion was particularly useful when they made the decision to have the gods appear only on screen, and the humans played by actors in the room.
“We tend to work in layers,” says Brookes. “In shaping the world of the work it’s about thinking which layers are running in parallel, and how they meet or don’t meet, or inform each other. There is also a film playing for the duration of each episode. We’re using a screen as a huge window onto the outside world. Each episode has its own two-hour single shot pan of a Welsh landscape, so that’s a constant. We’re not suggesting that it’s a backdrop, but it opens up the room. It’s similar with the gods – they will be in dialogue with each other and with the live cast, in hopefully quite a natural way, but having them on film allows us to establish them as of another order, another layer, that’s watching and interacting. There are cinematic elements to it, in terms of shifting the layers around in a complex web of behavior and components. There’s a lot of quite cinematic images in Logue’s text, too, and that’s always been in our minds, which is why we’ve shaped the production in this way. We talk about jump-cuts and panning in rehearsals, visualising our images as if watching them on film. We’ve been trying to find those connections.”
“Logue’s written very specifically about film and The Iliad/War Music,” continues Pearson. “This notion of benshi helped me to really think about what I was trying to do in the room. What we’re creating is a sort of film [that is then narrated to the audience]. The “film” is in the audience’s imagination, and you’re allowing them to see this thing in the room through the narration and the actors doing things… you’re hearing the soundtrack, you’re seeing people who are set-builders but also acting as sort of directors… the whole ambition is cinematic in its scale, but also in that deconstructed components of a film.”
What about the practicalities of staging eight hours of theatre, then? There are breaks between each two-hour performance, but it’s a marathon not just for the audience, but also for the cast and stage crew. “NTW are publicising the show as a kind of box set,” laughs Pearson. This “binge-watching” fits with many people’s methods of entertainment consumption – we’ve all said “just one more episode” and suddenly found it’s 2am, right?
“Personally,” says Pearson, “it’s about exploring that sense of what is possible in a social situation. We’re putting 300 people in a room and attempting to realise this thing meaningfully for them… I think there’s something about the scale of that attempt and the scale of the work itself that could be extraordinary. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced, so I’ve always got this sense of what this might be for us and for the 300 people who commit to trying to see this thing through to the end, and how that works as a social situation, as a reflective situation. What is that going to propose? What’s going to come out of that?”
“I don’t think anyone has ever made such a durational work in Wales!” says Brookes. “So that’s a point of interest within histories of theatre making. I read something that called Homer’s Iliad ‘a song you don’t want to end’, and I guess we’d like to instill and evoke that feeling – even after 12 hours, you just don’t want it to end!”
The Iliad runs at The Ffwrnes, Llanelli, Carmarthenshire until 3rd October: book tickets here