Fresh Homer triumphs

DAVID ZAMPATTI
Denis O'Hare. Picture: Toni Wilkinson

THEATRE
An Iliad
5 stars
Sunken Gardens, UWA

Review: David Zampatti

We begin with Homer, and nothing other than the Bible and Shakespeare has influenced us more. The poem of the uber-warrior Achilles that begins "Goddess, sing the rage of Achilles, murderous, doomed, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls", is as bloody and propulsive as anything ever told.

In it, for the first time, psychologically identifiable personalities emerge from the shade.

There was a time when every child knew the story of the Trojan War and no education in English was complete without reading The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Those days are gone; Brad Pitt and Eric Bana might still do battle outside the walls of Troy but the poetry that thrilled and the warnings that resonated for untold generations seems buried as deep as those bloody battlements.

Not for Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson. The American actor and his director friend had long harboured the idea of bringing The Iliad to the stage, and the result is an unmitigated triumph.

Dressed in a scruffy coat and pork-pie hat, his chain-mail vest riddled with holes (a dangerous chink - ask Hector and Achilles), O'Hare drops a battered suitcase on the ground and starts his story. After the introduction, in the original, archaic Greek, he's contemporary and American, maybe from Brooklyn (where the Midwestern actor now lives), a veteran perhaps, a traveller.

He recites the famous list of the Greek ships, reminding us that each carries men with wives and children and parents, from villages and farms, nine years out from home with no way back in sight.

Then O'Hare changes tack. Those ships become a list of Australian towns and suburbs; assembling the flower of Greece for war becomes the muster of our own youth.

Whether by accident or design, their fate is not made explicit but it's inescapable; from the walls of Troy, once, sharp-eyed Hector could see the ridges of Gallipoli, just across the narrow Dardanelles.

This juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, classical and contemporary, us and them, gives An Iliad a phenomenal pitch and purpose. It connects Achilles' killing fields with all those other terrible places throughout history.

In one harrowing explosion of horror O'Hare names them, a roll-call of blood and misery. The rage of man-slaughtering Achilles, the wounds of brave Patroclus and shining Hector, the tears of noble Priam and steadfast Andromache, the tom-tom of death beating down through history. The cities burning, from Alexandria and Constantinople to Baghdad and Kabul.

"Have you ever seen a frontline?" he asks us, and we fall silent.

O'Hare is such a wonderful actor. He's not especially handsome or striking; his voice is neither particularly deep nor musical but his humanity and his knowingness fill the stage. He can pull humour from his hat (there's plenty of it there) and turn it into horror.

He has a fine accomplice in bassist Brian Ellingsen, whose inventive playing matches, and sometimes makes, the actor's moods. Peterson's direction is simple and subtle at once: a sudden light here, a quick reverb on her actor's voice there, and O'Hare's stage becomes the world.

It's a pity the Sunken Gardens are seldom used for theatre. Its terraces, on this still, portentous night, became a Greek amphitheatre; the passing traffic brought us back, as the play does, to the here and now.

That's because the character O'Hare creates is universal. He's the man in the tattered coat who's always looked at the world and seen it for what it was. He's the miller and the Little Tramp, Falstaff and Quixote, written by Chaucer and Shakespeare, Voltaire and Cervantes, Nick Cave and Tom Waits.

And, of course, he's the first of them all. He's Homer.