In Hamlet Act II Scene ii, before the visiting players put on the show Hamlet requests to expose his uncle as a murderer, one of the troupe perform a monologue about the fall of Troy and the sorrows of Hecuba, its queen. The melancholic Danish prince later marvels at the player’s ability to feel so intently for a figure of antiquity – ‘What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba / That he should weep for her?’.
While retelling a different epoch of the Trojan War, Achilles almost feels like it could be the speech Hamlet describes. One man pours his full physicality and vocal powers into a forty-minute emotion-laden retelling of the Iliad’s conclusion. However, the potential of these declamations – undeniably powerful and appropriately archaic – are hampered by an inconsistency and lack of innovation in the storytelling style. The lone performer weaves a tale full of feeling but does not commit to anything other than the retelling – insight and interpretation are lacking.
The tale begins with the dramatic recitation, and as the piece progresses chanting and physicalisations – some abstract, some realistic – are mixed in at conventional intervals: for instance, the chants arrive at moments of tragedy, and when not accompanying the chants the movement acts out dreams and battle sequences. Mixing dance/physical theatre and vocal chanting with exposition and narration are not poor strategies in themselves but inserting these elements at expected points in the story pauses the narrative’s momentum, therefore lessening the impact of these choices. When the obvious move seems static recitation or violent movement, there is no dramatic tension when these choices are taken. Unfortunately, the rhythm becomes stagnant and uninspiring as a result.
Interweaving the storytelling languages with the narrative in less conventional fashions could have brought more emotion and layers to the scenes and situations presented, especially ones as well-known as those in Greek legends. On that note, nothing new is added to the story of the Trojan War – while ‘hot takes’ are not always necessary, stories as ingrained into Western literary and theatrical tradition as Homer’s can feel rote if not offered a new angle today.
Achilles is clearly a labour of love, but its potential is squandered by an uninspired structure and lack of innovation. While those keen on physical theatre may find it impressive, those looking for a fresh take on the Iliad may want to look elsewhere.
Achilles plays at Summerhall at 16.15 on all days except Mondays from 5-26th August. Tickets cost £10 and are available through the EdFringe website.