in medias res
Tim Bano: …and in the end, no end. Because, in the end, it’s only one account of the story of the saga of Troy. The production uses Christopher Logue’s ‘account’ of the Iliad, in modern verse with modern references and rendered in stunning poetry. Sometimes it’s lyrical, sometimes silly. But above all it is completely captivating.
The first word of any ancient poem was possibly the most important in the whole work. In the Iliad, in the form that we have it, the first word is ‘anger’. So that suggests the poem’s primary focus, a lens through which to read the work. That was Homer’s take on these few days in the ten-year-long Trojan War. National Theatre Wales’ colossal production, however, starts with an ‘and’, and throughout the performers repeat a kind of refrain: ‘in the beginning there was no beginning, and in the end, no end’.
It’s similar to Rob Icke’s Oresteia in that it reminds its audience a) that these stories have been told many times before and in many different ways by different people, b) that they are always just small parts of larger mythologies so that we are always starting in the middle of a narrative, c) an ancient audience would have known all the intertwined stories, the bits that come before and after (the Trojan horse, the Judgement of Paris, the death of Achilles, the fates of all the characters) but is a contemporary audience expected to know this? Even if not, Mikes Pearson and Brookes (the directors) tell us that stories never emerge ex nihilo and are always in full flow.
Eleanor Turney: …in the beginning was no beginning feels about right. I walked up to Ffwrnes with my family, and my sister’s partner asked for “a quick synopsis”. Where to start? With Paris and Helen? With Menalaus, cuckolded? With Agamemnon and Iphigenia? With the fact that the Greeks have been camped on Troy’s beach for nine long years? So many stories stem from this story – something us English grads know only too well – and so many stories feed into this story.
NTW’s production focuses on the wrath of Achilles, here described as the sulk of Achilles, and all of its foreseen and unforeseen consequences. I’ve had Christopher Logue’s pulsating words pinging round my head since Saturday morning, and the Mikes have succeeded marvelously in rendering the music of Logue’sWar Music, albeit a music that is by turns lyrical, haunting, grief-stricken, furious or dissonant. They also capture the sheer pettiness, first of Agamemnon, who demands Achilles’ captured ‘she’, and then of Achilles as he allows thousands of his countrymen to die.
The gods, teenage, implacable, look on, separate from the mortals and only appearing on screen. This ‘otherness’ and the humans’ essential lack of agency is emphasised by the stage-hands, dressed identically to the cast, who continually move, make and re-make the set, which is composed of tyres, wood and plastic chairs. This constant shifting and unsettling, the continuous movement, distraction, pins down the chaos and horror of war in a way that will never let a garden centre look the same again…
TB: That B&Q backlot design is simplicity itself made impossibly complex – those never-ending piles of plastic garden chairs, and the ropes and timbers and tyres being manipulated into myriad epic sculptures. So often I found myself transfixed on their never-ending manufacture rather than on the performers.
Who are these sculptors? Stage-hands, yes, but also set designers on an epic Hollywood film, or a handful of the many thousands of men who graft hard for the war effort while the leaders talk and plot. That was perhaps what moved me most: the ‘great men’ – the Agamemnons and Achilleses – debate and sulk and do nothing, while the huge Greek army is camped on Trojan shores. And to keep that army functioning would have been like governing a small city. Who stoked the fires, chopped trees, hunted for food, kept the ships from rotting, made the weapons? Who gave up their lives in droves? Not the mouthy, trouserless Kings.
The stage-hands are sweating from their physical exertion. Sometimes, we the audience are a small part of that effort. We give up our chairs with indignant faces. Other times we are like minor deities, the silent observers. Just as for the gods the acts of brief mortals are trivial and can be treated with dispassion, so we the audience know that what we are seeing in this huge warehouse space in a small Welsh town isn’t real.
ET: Real, no, of course not, but there’s something about those piles of plastic chairs, hurled against the back wall; they are eerily reminiscent of nameless white graves, or piles of bodies waiting for an incinerator. It’s really quite astonishing how much of Troy these few people conjure in a small town in Wales. It’s a large, high space, but it is somehow both intimate and epic.
A huge screen dominates the back wall, panning oh-so-slowly across a landscape, offering a glimpse of the outside world or another realm. Time is slippery in here as the world is constantly re-arranged around us and between us, as we move around the space and are guided through this story, this war. It is a surprise every time there’s a break to sit in the September sunshine and eat a mediocre sandwich, as your mind turns over what you’ve just witnessed.
It does feel like bearing witness; there’s something in the collective sense that we’re all in this together, for the duration. I am glad to be here with people I love, and I have a sense from early on that it’s an experience we will return to, chew over, talk about for a long time to come. The end, when it finally comes, is abrupt. Out into the night we go, and walk back to our Air BnB, hearing the sounds of the end of the Wales-England rugby match (Wales won). We are quiet on the way home. And yet, here we are, still thinking, talking, writing. In the end, there was no beginning, and in the end, no end…
A Song You Don’t Want To End: The Exeunt interview with Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes