As part of a project on reviewing and arts criticism, The Wireless is featuring reviews of the shows of the New Zealand Festival. In this final piece of the series, Uther Dean compares An Iliad and Unmythable.
It’s always a fool’s errand to ascribe meaning or order onto the wild swirling madness of an international arts festival’s programming. Yes they are curated, yes they are controlled, but they still sit at the eye of the ever raging storm of the international circuit and touring timings and all associated hells.
That they manage to cobble together such a cornucopia of culture at all down here at the bottom of the world every two years is a miracle. So it is quite shocking how much of this year’s festival managed to neatly arrange itself into pairs. Whether thematically or just in form, this festival has been quite the compilation of diptychs, sets of works reflecting and complimenting each other.
This has been a real boon to the festival, making it seem like a much more complete collection of work than any passing festival in recent memory. It has also had the interesting effect of bringing to light problems in some works that would in past years have been seen as almost flawless. When one work shows something can be done with a little work, then how do you respond to a show that, while otherwise brilliant, fails attempting that same thing? That is the problem posed by the juxtaposition of Unmythable and An Iliad.
On the surface two very different works with two very different audiences they are united by a shared intent. While Unmythable may be squarely aimed at a young, energetic audience with a hilarious chaotic energy and An Iliad’s pensive playing may have been aimed at an older, literary one, they both exist for quite a simple purpose. To take the myths of gods and heroes that are now taught as Classics, and tell them to a modern audience in as clear and direct a way possible. They have different reasons for doing this.
Unmythable simply wants to entertain (and maybe educate a little) in the best mode of children’s theatre. An Iliad very clearly wants its audience to draw a line between the unending violence contained in the titular tale and that still going on in the world today. A tour de force moment where the lone performer Denis O’Hare breaks down into simply listing every conflict between the Trojan War and today makes that more than clear.
The driving energy of the show that made it so magnetic also made it very hard to hold on to anything.
Both intents are noble and both are more than achieved, both being truly stand-out works of the festival. But one makes a much easier path to their goal than the other and it’s not in the what but in the how that said path got knotty. And here, I guess, is where I have to admit that, while I had problem following the many mythical ins and outs of Unmythable, I didn’t know what was going on for most of An Iliad. Which was a real problem for me.
I don’t know the Classics. When it comes to choosing Homers, I will always go for Simpson. I know the stories, roughly. I mean, I’ve seen some Xena. What I don’t know is names or details. When we’re introduced to Jason at the top of Unmythable and asked, as the audience, to stand in for his Argonauts, I know those names but, unlike most of the audience, I don’t know what adventure we’re about to go on.
And what an adventure it is! Filled with many side-steps into other myths, Unmythable is a great big fun show. It's the kind of thing that I'd call a Romp if that word didn't make me cringe. It even managed to have comic songs in it that didn’t make me want to raze the theatre. But most importantly, I was never once confused or lost in regards to the story. I always knew where we were, I always knew who was who, and I always knew what was going on. And so the show landed with me.
Which is not to say that An Iliad didn’t land with me. Not at all. The sheer force and skill of O’Hare’s performance – we may not see a performance at this level in this city again for years – is breath-taking and dazzling. By effort and acting alone he brought the show around for me even when I spent so much of it without a clue as to what was happening. Names would fly out into the world and then someone would be speaking and then something would happen and then we’d be somewhere else and I’d be thinking ‘wait, who’? ‘What’? ‘When’? ‘We’re where’?
The driving energy of the show that made it so magnetic also made it very hard to hold on to anything. Which is fine if you know the story. And yes, most people do. But I don’t. And I shouldn’t have to. The first job of any adaptation of any text is that it should stand alone from its original.
Now, I should be clear, everything else about An Iliad was exceptional. Total lack of understanding aside I still treasure my experience watching it. But Unmythable managed in less time, with more story to express, to get it all across. Both shows operated in incredibly conversational mode. One just pulls it off more than the other. Iliad got so caught in its beautiful energy, in its amazing idea that it lost sight of its key piece of working. While this only ham-strung it the smallest amount, the rest of the machine of the show closed around that problem, it still took the shine off it a little for me, while Unmythable remains total in my mind. Absolute. Wonderful.
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