ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH
Review by Mark Brown
Mark Thomson, out-going artistic director of the Royal Lyceum, cannot be accused of making life easy for himself. As he prepares to hand over the reins of the grand Edinburgh repertory company to his successor, renowned playwright and director David Greig, he bids his directorial adieu with an ambitious new adaptation of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad.
There is, in Chris Hannan’s version of the foundation stone of Western literature, a challenge that is symbolic of Thomson’s 13-year tenure. The director has often appeared like a prize fighter seeking out ever-stronger opponents.
There is much to admire in his farewell production. Like Hannan’s beautifully crisp script, Thomson’s staging is eager to grasp the seminal in Homer’s poem.
As the Greek forces lay siege to Troy, Thomson reflects, with no little wit, the modern world in an ancient conflict. Top god Zeus and his wife Hera appear as a decidedly modern warring couple who take different sides in the war.
Richard Conlon’s wonderfully louche Zeus is like an unaccountable dictator given to alcohol, sexual affairs and, on occasion, a chillingly casual rape. Hera is played with burning rage and insouciant swagger by the excellent Emmanuella Cole. She seems like a cross between Imelda Marcos and Sophia Loren when, satisfied with her meddling in human affairs, she saunters into heaven in a bikini and dragging on a cigarette (although just why she must expose her bosom throughout the second half is never quite clear).
Cole’s performance is equalled, in a decidedly uneven cast, only by Ben Turner’s charismatic and fearsome Achilles. The actor has the measure, not only of Hannan’s poetics, but also of his character’s almost insane lust for vengeance following the death in battle of his beloved friend Patroclus.
However, Turner’s performance is a rare example of the production succeeding in its epic ambitions. The tone of the piece is frustratingly inconsistent.
Moments of Greek song fail to carry any spiritual weight, seeming, instead, like mere theatrical punctuation. Karen Tennent’s maximalist set (two sets of blood-spattered, ancient ruins held up by modern steel) lacks flexibility, its stasis reflected in the piece’s disappointing moments of rigid exposition.
Thomson could have taken his leave with a crowd-pleaser by one of the Alans (Ayckbourn or Bennett). It is to his credit that he departs, instead, with a brave, if not entirely successful, Iliad.
Runs until May 14. Details: lyceum.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on April 27, 2016
© Mark Brown