War is eternal, the urge to create conflict a deep-seated human impulse – that’s the depressing, sledgehammer take-home from An Iliad, a modern one-man retelling of Homer’s epic poem currently running at The Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi.
At the evening’s emotional climax, our narrator spouts a list of dozens of conflicts, from ancient times right up to Aleppo. What slaps the psyche hardest is not just the length of the list, but how many of these wars you might never have heard of – and the fatigue inspired by merely hearing the names of the ones you have.
Star and co-writer Denis O’Hare’s (True Blood) solo turn as our haggered, bewildered bard is a ferocious tour de force, the Tony winner stalking the Red Theatre’s stark stage with an crusty charisma and commanding physicality. The Storyteller’s purpose is never made clear – nor is the role of the acknowledged audience, the fourth wall distinctly broken by some early call and response. The opening ten minutes is a riot, O’Hare hamming it up with copious local geographic references and stock Arabic phrases – yalla, khalas, inshallah – like a stand-up comic setting up a punchline. He even pulls out a copy of The National, to bristles of audience amusement.
But the laughs quickly became fewer and further between, as the gears switch into a selective retelling of Homer’s 2,700-year-old masterpiece, vigorously re-rendered in a mix of modern colloquialism and ancient verse. The tonal switch is set spinning into motion when an unannounced musician runs suddenly onto the stage. Picking up a double bass in the off-stage parados, Brian Ellingsen wrestles Mark Bennett’s original music to life, these haunting melody lines and frenzied percussive attacks offering a dramatic sonic counterpoint to O’Hare’s barrelling prose.
Co-written alongside director Lisa Peterson, the duo together known as Homer’s Coat have authored a biting, 21st century emotional exposition of the source material, quoting stirling from Robert Fagels’s muscular, musical translation without ever descending into scholarly reverence – this is, notably An Iliad, not The Iliad.
Throughout, O’Hare’s performance is immutable wildfire – baying, bellowing, pointing, hurling – at turns giddy with bloodlust, frantic and furious, sorrowful and solemn. The tragedy always feel painfully present and contemporary, rather than arms-length and ancient. Tellingly, there is more than a hint of Donald Trump to be detected in his eyebrow-rousing turns as Greek King Agamemnon – an egotistical megalomanic sadly as believable today as he was nearly three millennia ago.
An Iliad repeats at The Arts Centre, NYU Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat Island on Wednesday, March 15 at 2pm and Thursday, March 16 at 8pm. Free tickets have been exhausted but standby may be available on the door. See www.nyuad-artscenter.org.