Michael Hurst's An Iliad

An Iliad

Hawke's Bay Arts Festival /
23 October 2019 /
By Jess Soutar Barron

Watching Michael Hurst over thirty years of theatre going and television viewing, I know he knows how to be subtle, how to find gentle moments, how to show not just tell, how to breathe. I saw none of this though in An Iliad: One hundred minutes of toxic testosterone mansplaining, relentless verbosity set to a restrictive pattern of monosyllabic movements: eye pop, jaw jut, arms out, tight fists, repeat.

On a stage littered with point-less post-fest rubbish, that’s never referred to, engaged with, or made sense of – (leading us up a blind alley to the stage door?) – Hurst presents a telling of Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem about the last week before the sacking of Troy. He enters, houselights still up, as if he’d just wandered onto the set but his natural charisma and celebrity mean all eyes are on him immediately. He summons the muses, none appear. He summons again. After the magic of three Shayne Carter skulks on like a roadie on his smoko and begins chucking out harsh electric guitar and the warbles and drones of a sound desk balanced on a road case. He’s giving us more belligerence, more monotony.

This kind of masculinity presented with aggression, fuelled by alcohol, is unsettling. Fury and fear mount. But the wall of noise that comes at us lacks refinement. With no definition there’s no detail and we become immune.

Big sounds sound bigger when wrapped around with silence, or pauses, even just a breath. This though is a tsunami of rage: relentless and exhausting. Perhaps it’s meta, perhaps the reaction of audience reflects the desperation of war but maybe it’s just lazy direction and a stage superstar going through the motions of delivering ‘epic’. An allegory needs a moral– this all seems pointless. Many times throughout I try to unpick what’s happening, is this the ranting of a madman or the proselytising of a sage?

Presentation of anything that is not straight and male is thin and mono-dimensional. Women are shown as naggy, needy, whores or mothers…The Bitch. Clear definition of characters is lost in the wave of shouting. There’s a tiny delight when Hermes arrives like something from Queer Eye for the Greek Guy but he soon skips off again and takes all the fun with him.

Once or twice Hurst intersperses Wide Eye, Jaw Jut, Fist Punch with a stunning profile – an archer, anguish, an ancient summoning the next memory, but this is rare and limited, then we are back to Pop, Jut, Punch.

There’s a moment when Hurst throws ghoulish twisted silhouette up behind him onto the slatted drama of the Century backdrop but there’s other times too where this trick of the light would have added much, and it doesn’t happen. Maybe the guy in the tech box fell asleep, soothed by the droning monologue coming from below him.

The brutality of humans becomes a party piece of insane memory retention as Hurst recalls every war from the Trojan War to Syria like a drunk uncle successfully delivering a word-perfect rendition of “I am the very model of a modern major general”.

The script is stunning, there’s real poetry in the telling of the tragic tale and moments when that alchemy of Homer’s digressions and deviations is captured and re-presented for modern audience. The telling of Troy as a city is beautiful and we’re right there to see the open courtyards and the water features, hear the voices, understand peace. That moment makes Troy’s fall even more terrifying.

One point near the end proves Hurst can find calm within his own storming. He moves to the mop and bucket to one side, takes up a measure of water in his hands and brings to his face, flicks it around his mauri, in a cleansing ritual.

“Flick us a drop, Uncle”, I shout across the auditorium, “we need to wash off this dirt”. That’s just me though. The audience on the whole loved it. Who doesn’t love raving uncles with party tricks? Hurst and Carter get their standing ovation.

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