Review By Rowan Brunt
Described as an “epic show with mythic proportions”, co-creators David Morton and Joshua Thomson have assembled some of Australia’s leading innovators from Dead Puppet Society and Legs on the Wall for a production that combines narrative, movement and spectacle, mesmerising puppets and physical theatre.
Holding Achilles follows the hero Achilles (Stephen Madsen) through his maturing and growing as a warrior and into the epic Trojan War, all of which are drawn from Homer’s seminal text Iliad. But this story welcomes in Patroclus as a lead character (Karl Richmond), Achilles' lesser known compatriot and lover. Where Achilles is callous and hard to others, he is tender and gentle to Patroclus. The piece follows the duo as Patroclus arrives to live with Achilles' father, Peleus, the two young men whose differing personalities initially clash as they set out on many adventures; training with Centaur, Chiron (Nic Prior) and in Act II face the epic Trojan War together. Through the complex politics and many characters the two come to love one another seeing the best of each in the other.
Morton and Thomson have done considerable work to understand this story of such epic nature and in many artistic elements succeed enormously but for the Achilles and Patroclus story to be scaled back to a 2hr show means some things fall to the wayside. The story arc and tone of this piece is where it falls short, with the text not meeting the scale of Greek legend and at times feels rushed and overly casual. Within the softer moments we do see some great care of text, especially coming from Patroclus mentor Odysseus (John Batchelor) and King Priam (Caroline Dunphy), that brings us deeper into these characters' humanity but they are short and fleeting.
Madsen is the epitome of the hero on his quest, callous and sharp to begin with but softens and passionate to his love towards the end. Richmond is a deeply sensitive Patroclus with an endearing quality that draws an audience in and anchors the narrative.
The strength in this piece comes from the marriage of physical theatre, puppetry and design and this is where the characters come alive. Nic Prior’s centaur walking on stilts and at times floating through the space is majestic and ethereal whilst Ellen Bailey shines in battle sequences as the demanding Hector with a physical prowess that is mesmerising and is playful and gentle as the puppet of the bear, Heracles. The use of spears as a choreographic tool and in the many different fight sequences are wonderful in creating a sense of place and setting, with beautiful tabloids being created. The choreography between Achilles and Patroclus as they entwine and flow through spear training and in the aerial elements are tender and playful.
A prominent disc is the central set element, co-designed by Anna Cordingley and Morton, a wash in golds and silvers represents the sun and moon as it creates a beautiful atmosphere of grandeur that through all the action of the piece echoes the dualities of our two heroes perfectly.
The dreamy, often haunting, score of the piece is composed by Tony Buchen and Chris Bear with Sydney based singer/ songwriter Montaigne who delivers a stunning performance as the sea nymph and mother of Achilles, Thetis. There were a few balance and sound issues on my performance with often the music overpowering the dialogue and microphone cues coming in mid sentence. The reverb layered into Montaigne Sound meant that often the lyric is completely lost to a wash of sound and any intentionality in the song is clouded . The composition as a whole gives a dark and expansive feel to the text but apart from indicating tone doesn’t service the narrative. The music at times seems to be added just so moments of choreography can come alive or the passage of time can be conveyed.
Holding Achilles is a detailed and artful world showcasing the potential for physical theatre and a design lead process in telling a story.