By any measure, adapting Homer’s The Iliad for the stage is a brave, bold – and as some might say – foolhardy undertaking.
It took director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare more than five years to distil the ancient Greek epic poem into the 100-minute solo show An Iliad, which will be presented at New York University Abu Dhabi at three shows this week, starring O’Hare alone on the stage.
As one of the cornerstones of western literature, Peterson first encountered Homer’s Trojan war tale on the written page as a student. But it was not until the 2003 US invasion of Iraq that she began researching war plays, and realised The Iliad’s dramatic potential. Dated from around BC760 to 710, it is likely Homer’s words were first experienced and passed on aurally and only documented later.
“I just felt we ought to admit that we were at war, and think about what it meant,” recalls Peterson. These questions stirred the 56-year-old director to pick up a pen, following a long period of adapting classics and works by other writers.
Originally, Peterson conceived it as an entirely improvised, situational performance piece. “I wanted to go right to the source and work with an actor,” she says, “to find an actor that could walk into an actual bar, and improvise nightly based on The Iliad“.
She turned to friend O’Hare, a Tony award-winning stage star, whose screen credits include celebrated indies such as Milk and Dallas Buyers Club, and is perhaps best known for playing vampire Russell Edgington on the HBO fantasy series True Blood.
Peterson and O’Hare had not worked together for more than 15 years, and in the interim, “he’d become rather famous,” says Peterson. “But also, I knew that he was a very smart, pointed, political person, and I thought he’d have enough opinion to bring a really interesting perspective.” The pair began meeting irregularly from 2005, reading versions of The Iliad and videotaping their conversations about the text.
Settling on the celebrated translation by Robert Fagles, slowly a script began to coalesce, mixing the original text with verbatim transcriptions from their recorded dialogues – authoring a mix of ancient verse and 21st century colloquialism, which cloud the identity of the lead known as The Storyteller.
“He might be Homer, he might be a bard from ancient times who’s been cursed by the gods and just can’t disappear, who has to keep travelling the Earth telling the story because human nature doesn’t change, and war keeps happening,” adds Peterson.
The biggest challenge, inevitably, was what to keep in. Read at a speed of 300 words per minute, it has been calculated that the original text takes seven hours and 56 minutes to consume.
Peterson and O’Hare chose to zero in on the conflict between Achilles and Hector of Troy. A later word count found just 30 per cent of the text to be quoted directly from Fagels’s – particularly in the show’s bloody climax, where reverting to the poem’s dactylic hexameter lends a “thrum and a music” to the performance.
At this climax, our narrator becomes giddy, “wound up in the pure bloodiness” of the story. It’s a telling moment, despite pointedly referencing contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Peterson makes clear that An Iliad is not an anti-war statement, but a meditation on the rage – notably the play’s first word – that lies at the human core. All of this might explain the extraordinary resonance Peterson and O’Hare’s adaptation has had since its off-Broadway debut in 2012, winning multiple awards and being performed on four continents. At home, An Iliad has been picked up by numerous actors and companies across America, the words delivered at times by women and “male actors of all ages and ethnicities”, notes Peterson.
•An Iliad will be performed at Red Theatre, NYUAD, tomorrow and Thursday at 8pm, and on Wednesday at 2pm. Limited free tickets from www.nyuad-artscenter.org