An Iliad

Joseph Graves presents a take on Homer’s Iliad and mankind's bloody history

Don’t let the name fool you – An Iliad bears only a passing resemblance to Homer’s classic The Iliad, which you may have struggled through in high school. Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s critically acclaimed one-man stage adaptation ties the ancient with the modern, by describing the first war to end all wars in colloquial language, but also by deftly linking the Trojan bloodbath to modern day brutalities. Most likely you’ll leave the theatre knowing more about The Iliad than when you came in, but you’ll also know more about humanity than you ever wanted to.

Peterson and O’Hare’s words find an ardent messenger in the form of The Poet, played by Joseph Graves. Those who saw him tack between his six-year-old self, his pastor father, his alcoholic, tyrannical professor and the man’s tragically handicapped son in his brilliant Revel’s World of Shakespeare should have little doubt that he can don rags, squat under a makeshift urban bridge, clutch a bottle of whiskey, and recreate the Western world’s first (recorded) epic war. Reviews dwell not only on his sonorous voice, but on his gymnastic movements as he brings each battle to life. But to Graves, this is not about history but humanity. He explains that Homer’s Iliad made its voice-to-page transition sometime around the 8th century BC, which means drama – in the sense of performing words from text – began earlier than Sophocles would have us believe. 'How telling that the oldest of our Western theatrical forms dealt with the subject of war,' he says, 'of human rage-sponsored confusions, and, of our (often dubious) celebrations of "victories".' Clearly, little has changed.

Interestingly, the most powerful part of An Iliad reportedly comes not through dramatic technique but dry recitation of fact, when Graves rattles off a soul-crushing list of wars that have occurred since the siege of Troy – and those are the ones we know about. 'It’s not that present-day man is capable of greater evil than the man of antiquity,' says Graves. 'He merely has more effective means with which to realise his propensity to evil. Man does not deny that terrible things have happened, and go on happening, but it is always "the others" who do them,' he says, adding that when these deeds belong to the remote or even recent past, they sink into a sea of forgetfulness. 'Then that state of chronic woolly-mindedness returns, which we describe as "normality".'

For nearly two hours, An Iliad takes us through the trials of Achilles, Patrocles, Hector, Agamemnon and Priam, but in conversational language, biting commentary and even evocative songs that drive the point deeper than any annotated textbook ever could. But crucially, An Illiad is about The Poet’s message. 'It is the individual that can stop a war, not a nation.' Words to live by.