Livathinos’ The Whole Iliad on the Global Stage:
An Epic Drama
Recently in Greece various genres other than ancient drama seem to leave the page realm for that of the stage. Platonic dialogues and in particular Apology (e.g. “Socrates Now” based on Plato’s Apology by Polyplanity Productions & Elliniko Theatro (2012-2015); “The true Apology of Socrates” by St. Kraounakis & Speira Speira (2014), Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (e.g. “I, Thucydides, son of Oloros from the Deme of Halimous (2014) later entitled “I, Thucydides, the Athenian” by A. Kokkinou (2014-2015)) and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (e.g. “The Odyssey” by R. Wilson & The National Theater of Greece in collaboration with Piccolo Teatro di Milano – Teatro di Europa (2012-13); “Nekyia” based on the book 11 of the Odyssey, by Michail Marmarinos, NOH, (2015)) are reworked on the theatrical stage as multisensory spectacles for a contemporary audience. The orality, dialogic quality, metatheatricality and performativity of non-dramatic genres re-informs both our understanding of classical texts and modern theatrical techniques. Thus contemporary classical theatrical reception renews our interest in the formulation of the classical canon, this time allowing for a questioning deriving from a genre-bending rather than a genre-confining perspective while it revises and devises new theatrical practices.
A case in point is Stathis Livathinos’ theatrical rendering of Homer’s Iliad in 2013. The version premiered at the Athens and Epidaurus Festival in June 2013 only to continue till today to be repeated with great success in various areas of Greece (Athens, Piraeus, Patras, Philippi, Heraklion) and abroad (National Theatre of Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg in 2013; at Cyprus International Festival, at the Centro Dramático Nacional in Madrid and at Cinars Biennale in Montreal in 2014; and at the International Festival Santiago A Mil in Chile and at the Sibiu International Festival in Romania in 2015). This intense theatrical performance of Homer’s Iliad is considered to be the first production of the complete epic poem in 24 books in world theatre (Trubotchkin, 2014). It constitutes an extraordinary theatrical re-writing of the Iliad which both engages in a close dialogue with the Homeric text of 8th c. B.C. and also explores the possibility of inserting narrative in the onstage dramatic representation of the myth, thus re-invigorating the reception of a heavily interpreted ancient saga of gods and humans.
Firstly, throughout the performance there is a constant interplay between enactment and narrative. In the program notes, the term “epic tragedy” is coined by D. N. Maronitis, translator of the Iliad in Modern Greek, so as to better designate the transplantation of the epic poem in the theatrical realm. Drawing on Aristotle’s Poetics, the translator and classicist emphasises the affiliations between epic and tragic poetry from the perspective of a close philological reading of the poem. Livathinos, on the other hand, explores the possibility of bridging the gap between the two genres with the use of his conceptualisation of epic theatre. This concept of epic theatre is semantically differentiated from Brecht’s notion (Brecht 1935, 1936) of the term which is mainly connotative of didacticism and alienation techniques and effects (cf. Livathinos’ Interviews and Trubotchkin, 2014). Throughout the play the actors both enact and narrate gods’ divine actions and men’s heroic deeds. In particular, the interplay between impersonation and narrative is constant and can be further exemplified when during the onstage battles between two heroes, the actors are playing their part and then cease to comment upon their actions only to later return to their impersonating of the characters. The interchangeable immersion and abrupt detachment from the character suggest that the realisation of the Iliad in the theatrical milieu can be achieved as a type of narrative theatre.
In addition, the theatrical performance re-creates creatively the abundant battle scenes of a war epic. Firstly, taking into consideration the fact that both the academic consultant (M. Christopoulos) and the translator (D. N. Maronitis) are classicists, it is suggested that the numerous Iliadic similes (Buxton 2004) which establish a relationship between the melee combat and dance have functioned as a springboard for the theatrical dramatisation of war scenes. Secondly, the actors have been trained in kinetics (P. Huguet) and martial arts (S. Maximos, Saolin monk) and are seen to explore dance techniques such as high jumps or fast twirls in the representation of combat scenes. Energetic kinetics with dance elements (and a minimum use of props, such as scarfs or coats) are employed to reconstruct multiple combat scenes onstage. This theatrical innovation which spreads throughout the play culminates in the tango-like dance performed by the actors impersonating Menelaus and Paris, who are constantly alternating between enactment and narrative, between dressing and undressing each other.
Furthermore, the theatrical representation of Homer’s Iliad managed to pay equal attention to both divine and human figures that populate the Iliadic universe. Gods are by no means eliminated. Instead several gods–Zeus included–are portrayed in flesh and blood onstage. On the one hand, they appear to make crucial decisions which determine the outcome of the war between Greeks and Trojans by constantly interfering in human affairs. On the other hand, they are portrayed in accordance with the Homeric text to succumb to their human-like passions and vulnerabilities, e.g. Zeus indulging in Hera’s seduction, or Zeus’ inability to save his son from the battlefield. Moreover, Moira is not an abstract notion but an embodied character who determines the unravelling of the plot.
As far as humans are concerned, their presence is signalled with the use of Homeric formulaic phrases. However, these recurrent fixed phrases are used ironically since more often than not they are in sharp contrast with the character’s personality: e.g. the fixed phrase ”leader of the army” for Agamemnon is in discrepancy with his general stance towards the army. Moreover, the military coats play an important role in the designation of different characters in the theatrical representation of a war saga. Firstly, the coats function as the theatrical equivalent of the war armour. Secondly, the coats were usually removed from the defeated dead warriors thus denoting their death. In addition, when Achilles mourns Patroclus he is portrayed holding an empty coat. Moreover, when Andromache speaks for the last time to her husband Hector she is holding instead of Astyanax, a small empty military coat, denotative of the latter’s premature death despite his father’s aspirations for a glorious future. The coats thus constitute a theatrical finding which encapsulates the Homeric hero’s code and identity.
Moreover, the performance manages to shed new light on the Iliad by injecting humour into a world of atrocities and cruelties. The stress on the goddess’ ability for seduction provokes a smirk for the otherwise omnipotent male gods and heroes who indulge into their sexual passions. In addition, Hephaestus is presented as an immature child who enjoys constructing things, while Skamandrius, the divine river, manages to completely alter the heavy atmosphere of preceding scenes with a great deal of buffoonery produced mainly via body language. According to Livathinos, tragicomic humour is existent throughout the epic poem and it can also be conceived as a way to approach both epic and dramatic poetry.
However, it must be noted that there is a resonant absence in this theatrical rendering of the Iliad which however tends to be unnoticed. Helen, the very famous cause of the war and its detrimental repercussions, is never represented onstage. Homer in the very proem of the Iliad progressively expands on the causes of the current misfortunes which range from Achilles’ anger to Zeus’ decision. Livathinos, in his rendering of the epic poem, attributes the current sufferings to the fierce fight between Agamemnon and Achilles, a fight which is conceived as a civil war over an insignificant cause. Moreover, to further justify his choice not to materialize and embody Helen’s legendary beauty, Livathinos’ resorts to the Modern Greek poetic reception of Helen in Seferis’ poetry where the semi-goddess is portrayed as an elusive spectre.
All in all, Livathinos’ Iliad succeeds in re-writing the traditionally recited Homeric epic poetry for the theatrical milieu introducing the notion of narrative theatre. In doing so, this theatrical rendering of the Homeric epic does justice to the text which constantly alternates between the first and third person, while it creatively combines and impregnates narrative and dramatic dialogue. The Iliadic universe of gods and humans is turning into flesh and bones onstage with elaborative theatrical findings and dance techniques which both highlight the tragic dimension of the war and mitigate it with the use of humour. Thus Livathinos’ theatrical rendering of the complete Iliad manages both to renew our conceptualisation of epic poetry as a canonical genre not only with limitations but also with less traced flexibilities and to renegotiate the potentialities of the dramatic space to host an alien(?) genre.
At this point I would like to warmly thank Stathis Livathinos (National Theatre Director) for our discussion-interview on his theatrical rendering of Homer’s Iliad on April 11th, 2014 and actor Giorgos Tsiantoulas for his valuable help in contacting the people in the production.
APGRD, ‘Performing Epic’, 2012-2014.
Brecht, Bertolt, “From Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction (c. 1935)” in Richard Drain (ed.), Twentieth Century Theatre: A Sourcebook, Routledge 1995, p 112-114.
Brecht, Bertolt, “From Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting: The A-Effect (1936)” in Richard Drain (ed.), Twentieth Century Theatre: A Sourcebook, Routledge 1995, p. 114-117.
Buxton, Richard, “Similes and Other Likenesses” in Robert Fowler (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Homer, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 139-155.
Charalabopoulos, Nikos, Platonic Drama and its Ancient Reception. Cambridge University Press 2012.
Maronitis, Dimitris, ”Epic Tragedy”, in Programme Notes for Homer’s Iliad by Livathinos 2013.
Trubotchkin, Dimitri, “The Iliad in Theatre: Ancient and Modern Modes of Epic Performance”, New Theatre Quarterly, Cambridge University Press, November 2014.